Russia Admits Georgian Fly-Over as Rice Visits Region
Georgian ambassador leaves Moscow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKDyZGJL5o
Russian officials have admitted that they ordered the air force to fly over Georgia's rebel region of South Ossetia in a maneuver aimed "to cool hot heads in Tbilisi." The US' top diplomat didn't like to hear it. The statement came as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Tbilisi on Thursday affirmed US support for Georgia's pro-Western leadership in its increasingly rancorous relations with Moscow. Rice, meeting with US-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili, reprimanded Russian backing of Georgia's breakaway provinces with escalating conflict in the Caucasus region. Russia "needs to be a part of resolving the problem and solving the problem and not contributing to it," Rice was quoted by news agency RIA-Novosti as saying. "I have said it to the Russians publicly. I have said it privately." Russia charged that the overflight, a day before Rice's arrival in Tbilisi, was needed to prevent an attack by Georgia after its soldiers were briefly detained in South Ossetia. "There was an urgent need to undertake tangible measures in order to prevent bloodshed," the foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday. "Jets of the Russian air forces conducted a brief fly-over," the ministry said. "This move cooled hot heads in Tbilisi and helped to prevent forceful development of the scenario, which was more than real."
Rice on Thursday, July 10, promised US mediation in promoting a peace process and called for an end to "violence" in Georgia's rebel regions. Potential conflict between Tbilisi and its Russian-backed separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has set off alarm bells in Washington, which counts Georgia as a key ally in the region. A series of bombings that killed four people and injured dozens last week gave a grim edge to recent wranglings between Tbilisi and Moscow. "We give a high priority to the peaceful settlement of conflicts in Georgia," Rice said on Wednesday, promising US mediation in resolving the frozen conflict. But heavy warnings from Russia and sharp sallies by Rice as she began her visit Wednesday belied a longstanding battle for influence in the strategic region, to which Georgia's separatist regions threaten to become a proxy. "I'm going to visit a friend and I don't expect much comment about the United States going to visit a friend," she shot back in response to Moscow's criticism of US support for Saakashvili.
Backing for Georgia's NATO bid
Rice also clearly reaffirmed US backing for Georgia's bid to join NATO, a proposal that many see as having sparked the recent escalations in the Caucasus region as Russia manifests its objections to any eastward enlargement of the alliance. Russia strengthened diplomatic ties with rebel provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where most residents have been offered citizenship, following NATO's promise to remain open to Georgia's candidacy. Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh on Thursday paid a not-uncommon visit to Moscow to discuss setting up bilateral government ties with Moscow, Georgian news agencies reported. Tbilisi has protested such steps as a de facto annexation of its territory.
Georgia says will down Russian jets
Georgia's breakaway republics could join Russia-Belarus union: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYOA31KDE1s
A Georgian official warned Russia on Friday that it will have to "collect the shattered fragments" of its planes if they intrude on Georgian airspace again. Russia has confirmed that four of its planes circled over the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia late Wednesday for about 40 minutes, and said the mission was ordered to head off a possible "invasion" of the region by Georgian troops. Georgia, which has accused Russia of aiming to annex the province, said the mission was an illegal invasion of Georgian airspace. Both South Ossetia and another province, Abkhazia, have been outside the Georgian government's control since the end of separatist wars in the mid-1990s. The planes flew over separatist-controlled South Ossetia, whose de facto border with Georgia is around 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Tbilisi, where U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on a visit. Nikoloz Rurura, deputy chairman of Georgia's national security commission, said Friday that further overflights would not be tolerated. "We are very seriously preparing our armed forces; they are able to unequivocally repel any such aggressive steps," Rurura told The Associated Press. Hours earlier, officials in breakaway Abkhazia accused Georgian officials of plotting a blast that killed four there on Sunday. Abkhazian presidential envoy Ruslan Kishmariya said Friday that an investigation proves "high-ranking employees of the Georgian Interior Ministry" were behind the blast. The bomb exploded Sunday in a cafe in the town of Gali. The victims were a regional security chief, a U.N. translator, a local serviceman and a waitress. Georgia dismissed the initial accusations as "absurd and groundless." Russia does not formally recognize either region's separatist government, but it maintains close contacts with them and has granted passports to most of the regions' residents. Russia has peacekeeping forces in both regions; Georgia accuses the Russian forces of supporting the separatists. Georgia has said it suspects Russia of using peacekeeping troops as a cover to bring artillery and other heavy weapons into Abkhazia, and has flown pilotless reconnaissance drones over the breakaway region.
US blasts Russia for sending aircraft into contested South Ossetia region
The United States criticized Russia on Monday for intentionally violating Georgian airspace by sending military aircraft over the rebellious Georgian region of South Ossetia. Sean McCormack, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said Russian activities in the former Soviet republic "raise questions about Russia's role as peacekeeper and facilitator of the negotiations" to find a solution to separatist movements that have kept South Ossetia and Abkhazia away from the control of the central Georgian government. Russia said Friday that four of its planes circled over South Ossetia late Wednesday for about 40 minutes to head off a possible "invasion" by Georgian troops. Georgia threatened to shoot down planes Russian planes if the incursion is repeated. "The United States is concerned by the recent escalation in violence in the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and calls upon all sides to return to direct negotiations and resolve their differences peacefully," McCormack said. "We are deeply troubled by Russia's statement that its military aircraft deliberately violated Georgia's internationally recognized borders." In a statement issued late Monday, McCormack urged all countries, "including Russia," to "support Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders."
Georgia to Expand Military to Counter Russian Threat in Regions
Georgia plans to expand its military more than 15% to 37,000 soldiers to counter the threat of Russian aggression in two breakaway regions, a Georgian deputy defense minister said. Batu Kutelia said the troop increase follows a threat analysis last year. "We're talking about specific, not theoretical, threats," he said yesterday by telephone in the capital Tbilisi. "I'm referring to recent events" in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, "especially the air-defense situation." Georgia recalled its ambassador from Moscow on July 10 after Russia admitted that its air force violated Georgian airspace in South Ossetia. Russia's Foreign Ministry said the "brief flight" came in response to information of a possible Georgian "invasion" of the region. Mr. Kutelia said the additional manpower will be deployed to defend Georgia's airspace and the Black Sea coast. The increasing tension and violence in Georgia, which President Saakashvili's government has consistently blamed on Russia, has made the Black Sea country a flashpoint in Russia's relations with the West.
Russia, Georgia Hold Military Exercises amidst Tensions
Russia and Georgia have simultaneously started large-scale military exercises amid growing tensions between the two countries, caused by Russia's support of the self-proclaimed states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,and Georgia's plans to enter the NATO bloc. Russian Kavkaz-008 exercise is presented as a simulated counter-terrorist operation with tasks such as detecting, blocking and eliminating terrorist groups at altitudes over 2,500 meters. About 8,000 servicemen are taking part in the training and Russian command has also dispatched the elite Pskov Airborne Division to take part in the exercise. About 700 combat vehicles and more than 30 aircraft will be activated. The paratroopers will act together with the ground forces of the North Caucasus Military District, the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla, the border guard troops and the local Interior Ministry directorate. The servicemen will cooperate with peacekeeping forces stationed in the conflict zone and train to deliver humanitarian aid to the civilian population, the Russian Interior Ministry said in a release.
The Russian exercises will be held on the territory of 11 Russian regions, including Chechnya, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Circassia. The paratroopers will train near the Roksky and Mamison passes; the Roksky pass is the major link with the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. However, Colonel Igor Konaxshenkov, an aide to the Russian Ground Forces Commander, told Russian reporters that the exercises were pre-planned and not connected with the latest events in the region, but admitted the training program was adjusted. "The main objective of the training is to estimate the ability of the military command to act jointly in the conditions of terrorist threat in South Russia. In connestion with the aggravation of the situation in the zones of Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts, the participation in special peacekeeping operations will be also exercised," the colonel was quoted as saying by the Itar-Tass news agency.
On the other side of the border, Georgia started exercises, dubbed Immediate Response-2008, with the United States military forces. Acxcording to the Georgian Defense Ministry spokesperson, Mindiya Arabuli, about 1,200 U.S. servicemen and 800 Georgians will train for three weeks at the Vaziani military base near the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Military officers from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine will also take part in the exercises, the Georgian Defense Ministry reported. Two U.S. Air Force helicopters will take part in the training, the Georgian side said. It also added that the exercises are being fully funded by the Pentagon. Just like the Russian side, the Georgian officials said that the drills were planned months ago and are not related to recent tensions. As the two countries launched their supposedly unconnected military training, German foreign minister started his trip to Georgia and Russia aimed to secure peace in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia. Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Thursday and on Friday he plans to go to Abkhazia, where he will meet local leaders, the AFP news agency reported. The trip will then take him to Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov before Steinmeier returns to Berlin Saturday.
"The goal of the trip is to find with all the affected parties... ways out of this spiral of constantly escalating incidents. It is about building trust and creating the specific conditions for a solution that will be acceptable for all," German Foreign Ministry spokesperson was quoted by the agency as saying. German diplomatic sources said the trip would involve vetting specific initial steps with all sides to find a viable way forward. The German minister called Rusxsian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this week to discuss Abkhazia. Lavrov told him that Moscow wanted both "sides to accept obligations not to use force," and for Georgian troops to pull out of the strategic Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, the Russian foreign ministry said.