Georgian, Russian Relations Strained Anew by Shooting

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

MOSCOW, Sept. 4 -- Tension between Russia and Georgia, never far from the surface, flared anew Monday after a helicopter carrying the Georgian defense minister was shot at by separatists in a breakaway enclave supported by Russia.

The helicopter carrying Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili was hit several times and forced to make an emergency landing Sunday after it flew over South Ossetia, a region that has declared independence from Georgia and receives diplomatic and financial backing from Moscow.

"This is yet another provocation," said Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, speaking on television. "This was nothing unexpected, but the impudence of these provocations is getting more and more self-evident day by day."

Okruashvili said, "The rampage of these rogues will stop very soon."

Russia, which has a peacekeeping force in South Ossetia, accused Georgian authorities of deliberately violating the terms of a cease-fire that bans Georgian craft from flying over the province.

"A fair question arises: Why did the Georgian minister need to fly around in a violation" of the cease-fire, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The ministry statement said Russian officials "regard actions like this by Georgia as an act of provocation. . . . This is clearly intended to wreck efforts to resolve the Georgian-Ossetian [conflict] by peaceful means and shows that Tbilisi is starting to openly prepare the ground for resolving the problem by other means." Tbilisi is the seat of the Georgian government.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region inside Georgia's internationally recognized borders, are a constant source of tension between Russia and its southern neighbor.

Georgian forces were driven from South Ossetia and Abkhazia in short, brutal wars in the early 1990s. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has said he is determined to restore Georgian sovereignty over the two regions, and small-scale clashes along the borders of the disputed regions have repeatedly raised fears of a wider military conflict between Russia and Georgia.

Russia maintains that its troops are essential to peace in the region, but Georgia accuses Moscow of using its forces to prop up an illegitimate local government.

Saakashvili, who was swept to power following street protests over fraudulent elections in 2003, has firmly aligned the former Soviet republic with the West and wants his country to join NATO, an aspiration that is scorned in Moscow.

The Georgian Interior Ministry also said Monday that on Aug. 28 a helicopter carrying Saakashvili and a delegation of U.S. senators led by John McCain (R-Ariz.) was fired on by South Ossetian forces -- a charge that was quickly rejected by U.S. officials.

"The shots were fired at a different helicopter, and Senator McCain's helicopter was nowhere near where the incident took place," said a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi.

Georgian officials said that an antiaircraft missile was fired at the delegation's helicopter and that fragments of the missile were handed over to U.S. authorities. But the embassy spokesperson said the FBI had looked at the claim and dismissed it.

McCain met with South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoyty during his visit but described the encounter as "not productive."

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