Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the country of Georgia is on the Caspian Sea. It is on the Black Sea.

Georgian Planes Downed Over Breakaway Region

By Ruslan Khashig
Associated Press
Monday, May 5, 2008

SUKHUMI, Georgia, May 4 -- Forces from Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia shot down two unmanned Georgian spy planes over the territory Sunday, an Abkhazian official said.

Georgia denied the assertion and traded accusations with Russia, which is struggling with the West for influence in the country strategically located on the Caspian Sea. The two nations each say the incident indicates the other is preparing for war over the breakaway region.

Strained relations between Georgia and Russia, which has close ties with Abkhazia, have worsened since Georgia accused Russia of shooting down a pilotless Georgian reconnaissance plane over the breakaway region two weeks ago.

Russia denied involvement and separatist Abkhazian officials said their forces shot it down.

On Sunday, Ruslan Kishmaria, a representative of Abkhazia's president, said two planes had been shot down by Abkhazian anti-aircraft forces Sunday. Authorities were searching for fragments of the planes, he said.

Georgian Foreign Ministry official Maka Gigauri dismissed the claims as "completely absurd disinformation." The ministry later released a statement saying that pilotless, unarmed Georgian planes "will continue to fly in the sovereign airspace of Georgia to gather full information about the military intervention by the Russian Federation."

Abkhazia and another Georgian separatist region, South Ossetia, seek independence from Georgia or absorption into Russia. They have had de-facto independence since breaking away from central government control in early 1990s wars.

Russia is strengthening its support of the two breakaway regions as Georgia's president, U.S.-allied Mikheil Saakashvili, pushes for NATO membership for his country.

Russia has bristled at NATO's eastward expansion, and top officials have said they will do their best to keep Georgia and another Western-leaning former Soviet republic, Ukraine, out of the alliance.

Saakashvili has said he has no intention of using force against Abkhazia but has vowed to establish control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia while offering them a measure of autonomy. Russian officials have suggested that if Georgia joins NATO, it will have to give up its claim to the regions.

Russia has not recognized the two breakaway regions' independence claims, which would badly damage ties with the West and could lead to war with Georgia.

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