TBILISI, Georgia – Georgia accused Russia of “undisguised aggression” Tuesday, saying two Russian fighter jets intruded on its airspace and fired a missile that landed near a house. Russia denied the allegation — the latest dispute between Moscow and the former Soviet republic.
The Interior Ministry said two Russian Su-24 bombers illegally entered Georgia’s airspace Monday night over the Gori region, about 35 miles northwest of the capital, and fired a missile that landed 25 yards from a house on the edge of the village of Shavshvebi.
The missile did not explode, Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.
“If it had exploded, it would have been a catastrophe,” he told The Associated Press. He said experts were discussing what to do with the missile, which weighs about a ton.
The Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador to give him Tbilisi’s formal protest, calling the intrusion and firing of the missile “undisguised aggression and a gross violation of sovereignty of the country.”
Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko, speaking to reporters after receiving the note, denied that a Russian aircraft dropped the weapon.
A spokesman for Russia’s air force also denied the accusations. “Russian aircraft haven’t conducted any flights over that area and haven’t violated Georgia’s airspace,” spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky said in Moscow.
Relations between the two neighbors have been strained by Georgia’s efforts to shed Russia’s influence, court Western alliances and to join NATO.
Georgia has long accused Russia of trying to destabilize the country and of backing separatists in its breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which President Mikhail Saakashvili has pledged to bring back into the Georgian fold.
The Gori region where the missile was dropped is next to South Ossetia.
Georgia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Nika Vashakidze said that the Russian intrusion could be aimed at thwarting Tbilisi’s effort to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict in South Ossetia.
“It’s a test for Georgia and the international community to check how strong our reaction would be before planning serious moves to thwart the peace process. Our response must be very firm,” Vashakidze said.
Boris Chochiyev, a deputy prime minister in South Ossetia’s separatist government, accused Georgia of dropping the missile in a deliberate “provocation against Russia.”
“The Georgian side has done it in order to blame it on Russia,” he said. “Russia is the main guarantor of stability in our region, and it doesn’t want to incite tensions.”
Russian Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of Russian peacekeepers patrolling South Ossetia, said an unidentified aircraft dropped the missile after flying over South Ossetia and coming under fire from the ground.
He suggested that the plane came from Georgia.
Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said in televised comments that Georgian radars spotted the Russian aircraft that dropped the missile.
Georgian officials frequently claim Russian military violations of its airspace — accusations Russia denies.
Earlier this year, Georgia said Russian helicopters fired on its territory in the Kodori Gorge, a volatile area on the fringes of breakaway Abkhazia. A subsequent report by the U.N. observer mission in Georgia last month said it was not clear who fired at the Georgian territory.
NATO has announced it would open an information center in the Kodori Gorge.