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Russia's Moves Add To Strains With Georgia

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Georgian residents of Abkhazia largely fled or were driven from their homes by ethnic Abkhaz in the 1990s. But Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Tuesday night in a televised address that he is determined to peacefully reassert the country's sovereignty and reintegrate the two separatist areas.

Last week, tension intensified further when an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane was shot down over Abkhazia by what Georgian officials said was a Russian MiG-29 fighter.

Russian officials denied any involvement. Rogozin, the representative to NATO, said Wednesday that Georgian officials doctored the videotape they released to accuse Russia of the shoot-down. Other Russian officials said the drone was operating illegally over the breakaway region and was shot down by the Abkhaz.

Rogozin also suggested this week that a MiG-29 belonging to a NATO member might have downed the Georgian spy plane. NATO countries such as Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria still operate MiG fighters.

Appathurai said NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer remarked that "he'd eat his tie if it turned out that a NATO MiG-29 had magically appeared in Abkhazia and shot down a Georgian drone."

Georgia this week also threatened to block Russian membership in the World Trade Organization in retaliation for Moscow's recent actions, particularly Putin's decision to step up ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Georgia, a member of the 151-nation group, said it had cut off talks with Russia over membership. Aspiring members can be vetoed by any existing member. Georgia is also smarting from a Russian ban on the import of Georgian wines, mineral water and vegetables.

Talks will resume when Moscow reverses its move toward new ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, according to officials in Tbilisi.

"You can believe me: There will be no step forward on Russia's entry to the WTO until Russia reconsiders its decision," said Georgia's acting foreign minister, Grigol Vashadze, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.


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