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Page last updated at 19:51 GMT, Monday, 21 April 2008 20:51 UK

Russia 'shot down Georgia drone'

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Georgia's air force commander shows footage that allegedly shows a Russian aircraft shooting down the Georgian plane

A Russian fighter jet has shot down an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft over the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, Georgian authorities say.

Georgia's defence ministry has released video showing what appears to be a Russian MiG-29 shooting down the unarmed Georgian drone on Sunday.

A Russian air force spokesman said the claim was "nonsense" while Abkhaz rebels said they had downed the drone.

Russia's leader asked why a drone had been present in a "conflict zone".

Georgia was exercising [its] sovereign right to monitor a situation on its own territory
Mikhail Saakashvili
Georgian president

President Vladimir Putin expressed his concern in a phone call to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, the Kremlin reported.

Mr Saakashvili himself went on Georgian TV to say he had "categorically demanded [of Mr Putin]... that these aggressive attacks on Georgia be stopped immediately".

Tensions are high between the two neighbours over Russian support for Abkhazia and another breakaway Georgian region, South Ossetia.

Russian and UN peacekeepers have been deployed in the two regions since the early 1990s, when violence erupted as they broke free from Georgian control.

Tbilisi believes Moscow is fuelling the separatist conflict in Abkhazia to maintain Russian influence in the region and to damage Georgia's hopes of joining Nato, the BBC's Matthew Collin reports from Georgia.

'Absolutely illegal'

The video, shot from the drone moments before impact, shows a jet launching a missile over what appears to be the Black Sea.

Georgia map

"It's absolutely illegal for a Russian MiG-29 to be there," said Col David Nairashvili, the air force commander.

"Russian military aircraft intruded into Georgian airspace above Abkhazia, Georgia," said President Saakashvili on television.

"This aircraft attacked and destroyed a Georgian UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle]. Once again, Georgia was exercising [its] sovereign right to monitor a situation on its own territory."

Abkhazia's separatist administration has said its own forces shot down the drone because it was violating Abkhaz airspace and breaching ceasefire agreements.

According to Russian reports from Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, the authorities there have put on display fragments of the drone.

Garry Kupalba, deputy defence minister of the unrecognised Republic of Abkhazia, told reporters the drone had been shot down by an "L-39 aircraft of the Abkhaz Air Force".

He also identified the drone as an Israeli-made Hermes 450.

'Destabilising'

President Putin viewed the presence of the drone as a "destabilising factor escalating tension", the Kremlin said.

"During an examination of the incident with the Georgian unmanned plane, Vladimir Putin expressed his perplexity over the fact that the Georgian side is organising military flights over a conflict zone," it added.

A Russian air force spokesman said: "What would a Russian jet fighter be doing over Georgian territory?"

Last week, Georgia accused Russia of trying to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia by deciding to seek closer ties with them.

Russia has said its proposal is aimed at protecting the rights and legal interests of Russian citizens, who make up the majority of the population in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Earlier this month, Nato decided not to grant Georgia's request to join its Membership Action Plan but promised it would eventually become a member of the alliance.


SEE ALSO
Georgia angered by Russian move
16 Apr 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Georgia
18 Apr 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Georgia
18 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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