Tbilisi Says Missile an Act of Aggression

ReutersGeorgian special police carrying the motor from a missile the country says was fired from a Russian jet on Monday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgia accused Russia of "undisguised aggression" Tuesday, saying two Russian fighter jets intruded on its airspace and fired a missile that landed just meters from a house. Russia denied the claim.

The Georgian Interior Ministry said two Russian Su-24 jet bombers illegally entered Georgia's airspace over the Gori region, about 60 kilometers northwest of the capital late Monday, and fired a missile that landed 25 meters from a house on the edge of Shavshvebi village.

The missile did not explode, Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.

"If it had exploded, it would have been a catastrophe," Utiashvili said. He said bomb specialists were discussing what to do with the missile, which weighs about a ton.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador Tuesday to hand him Tbilisi's formal protest, calling the intrusion and firing of the missile "undisguised aggression and a gross violation of the country's sovereignty."

Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko, speaking to reporters after receiving the note, denied that a Russian aircraft fired the weapon.

A spokesman for the Air Force also denied the accusations.

"Russian aircraft haven't conducted any flights over that area and haven't violated Georgia's airspace," Air Force spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky said Tuesday in Moscow.

The dispute is the latest between Russia and Georgia, its small ex-Soviet neighbor -- a relationship made worse by Georgia's efforts to shed Russia's influence, court Western alliances and join NATO.

Georgia has long accused Russia of trying to destabilize the country and of backing separatists in its breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which President Mikheil Saakashvili has pledged to bring back into the Georgian fold.

The Gori region, where the missile was dropped, is next to South Ossetia.

Boris Chochiyev, a deputy prime minister in South Ossetia's separatist government, accused Georgia of dropping the missile in a deliberate "provocation against Russia."

"The Georgian side has done it in order to blame it on Russia," he said. "Russia is the main guarantor of stability in our region, and it doesn't want to incite tensions."

General Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of Russian peacekeepers patrolling South Ossetia, said an unidentified aircraft fire the missile after flying over South Ossetia and coming under fired from the ground.

He suggested that the plane came from Georgia.

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said in televised comments that Georgian radar spotted the Russian aircraft that dropped the missile.

Georgian officials frequently claim Russian military violations of its airspace -- accusations Russia denies.

Earlier this year, Georgia said Russian helicopters fired on its territory in the Kodor Gorge, a volatile area on the fringes of Abkhazia. A subsequent report by the United Nations observer mission in Georgia last month said it was not clear who fired at the Georgian territory.

NATO has announced that it would open an information center in the Kodor Gorge.