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Tbilisi seeks to replace Russian peacekeepers after Georgian plane downed

By Winston Featherly
Wednesday, May 28
Georgia is demanding an official apology and compensation from Moscow for the downing of an unmanned spy plane over Abkhazia last month, after a UN investigation concluded Russia was to blame for the attack.

Tbilisi is using the UN investigation’s unusually unequivocal findings to push its case that Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia must be replaced. President Mikheil Saakashvili said yesterday that Russia had undermined its role in Georgia’s separatist regions with the incident.

“It is entirely clear…especially after this latest official conclusion, that Russia on its own effectively cancelled the existing [peacekeeping] format. It claims to be peacekeeping, while at the same time executing armed attacks against the state in which it claims to be doing this peacekeeping,” Saakashvili said in a televised session of the country’s National Security Council.

Saakashvili said his government would carefully consult its allies to engineer a safe revision of the peacekeeping arrangement.

“Maintaining this format carries serious security risk and the threat that escalation will continue.”

Georgia alleged the Russian jet took off from the ostensibly decommissioned Russian base of Gudauta in breakaway Abkhazia, and is demanding an inspection of the base. The team of investigators, put together by the UN mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), suggested it was possible, but not certain, that the Russian plane took off from Gudauta.

“UNOMIG’s indication of the possibility of military aircraft’s presence on the airfield of the Gudauta military base makes it obvious that it is necessary to conduct an international inspection of this base,” the Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement posted on its website yesterday.

Russian officials have cast doubt on the conclusions of the UN investigation and drawn attention to Georgia’s operation of the spy flight in breach of a 1994 ceasefire agreement.

Russia’s ambassador to Georgia said the focus should be on the “initial cause” of the incident—the presence of Georgian reconnaissance planes over Abkhazia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said their experts found “serious discrepancies” in video footage of the incident, captured by the spy drone’s on-board camera and later publicized by Tbilisi. He also suggested the UNOMIG report was more ambiguous in its conclusions than the Georgian government is making it out to be, according to Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency.

“Absent compelling evidence to the contrary,” the UNOMIG team writes, “[the radar record] leads to the conclusion that the aircraft belonged to the Russian air force.”

After first denying reports of the incident, Georgia released video footage on April 21 which it said came from its spy drone destroyed over Abkhazia the day before. The dramatic video shows what Georgian officials say is a Russian MiG-29 destroying the filming aircraft with a missile.

The April 20 incident marked an upsurge in tensions as Moscow moved to bolster links with separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia and later reinforced its troops in the two territories.

Georgian leaders say the Kremlin’s actions amount to annexation of the breakaway territories, and demand they be reversed. Moscow says it is protecting Russian passport-holders and keeping the peace in the separatist enclaves.