Georgia Says Russia Spoiling Rice Visit

ReutersCondoleezza Rice being greeted by Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili upon her arrival at the Tbilisi airport on Wednesday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgia on Wednesday accused Russia of sending fighter jets into its airspace to undermine a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rice arrived in Tbilisi late Wednesday with a message of support for Georgia's government in its conflict with Russia over its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and to endorse the country's bid to join NATO.

The deputy commander of Georgia's military, Zurab Pochkua, said four Russian jets had spent a total of 40 minutes over South Ossetia on Tuesday night. He said Georgian forces did not fire on them to avoid loss of life on the ground.

A spokesman for Russia's Air Force declined to make an immediate comment. Russia has denied allegations in the past that its jets flew into Georgian airspace.

Georgian Foreign Minister Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili said Russia was ratcheting up tension hours before Rice's arrival because it wanted to sabotage talks on Western countries taking a more active role in mediating the separatist conflicts.

"It's a well-known policy of the Russian Federation to arrange provocations to coincide with high-level diplomatic activities. It's not only this visit of Miss Rice," Tkeshelashvili told reporters.

"Every time when diplomatic activity becomes strong enough to bring changes to the peace process, meaningful changes, then the Russian Federation does something to jeopardize that," she said.

Earlier Wednesday, Russia accused Georgia in the most explicit form yet of being behind attacks this month, including a cafe bomb in Abkhazia that killed four and an exchange of fire in South Ossetia that killed two separatists.

"The actions of Tbilisi present a real threat to peace and security in the South Caucasus and put the region on the edge of a new armed conflict with unpredictable consequences," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Rice, speaking in Bulgaria, made it clear which side Washington favored in the conflict.

"The United States considers Georgia to be a good friend," Rice told reporters. "There have been a number of moves recently by the Russian Federation that in fact have not been helpful in terms of the frozen conflicts there with Georgia and Abkhazia."

Rice also said her visit to Georgia, whose bid for NATO membership Russia opposes, is a matter between the United States and an ally.

"I'm going to visit a friend, and I don't expect much comment on the United States going to visit a friend," Rice said.

Rice paid a one-day visit to Bulgaria to receive the country's highest honor from President Georgi Parvanov for her help in securing the release of six Bulgarian medics from Libya nearly a year ago.

On a previous leg of her trip, Rice angered Moscow by signing a deal with the Czech Republic to host elements of the missile shield Washington wants to build in Eastern Europe.

Rice said Russia had no cause for worry and called Moscow's threat of military action "predictable, if disappointing."

In a separate development, Georgian security forces clashed with Abkhaz separatists in the Kodor Gorge, a regular flashpoint. Temur Iakobashvili, Georgia's minister for reintegration, said four separatists were killed, but the breakaway region's administration said none of its men were killed.