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UN: Russian fighter downed Georgian spy plane

By Winston Featherly
Tuesday, May 27
A Russian jet shot down an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance plane over breakaway Abkhazia last month, a UN investigation concluded in a report released yesterday.

After analyzing radar records and video footage of the April 20 attack, an independent team from the United Nations observer mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) said the attacking fighter flew north into Russia after shooting down a Georgian spy drone with a short-range missile.

“Absent compelling evidence to the contrary, this leads to the conclusion that the aircraft belonged to the Russian air force,” the report said.

In a big boost to Tbilisi as it seeks international support in replacing Russia’s peacekeeping force in Abkhazia, the report starkly says that “enforcement action by third-parties”—Russia’s downing of a Georgian plane—is “fundamentally inconsistent” with the ceasefire treaty and, “aside from possible considerations under international law, undercuts the ceasefire…regime.”

President Mikheil Saakashvili said the report demonstrates Georgia’s vulnerability as Russian troops park themselves in Abkhazia, in a press briefing yesterday alongside the visiting Polish president.

“This is the first time when, without any equivocation or general wording, international organizations and the UN in particular have directly accused the Russian Federation of these acts,” he said. “So the situation is certainly very difficult and serious.”

The Georgian state minister for reintegration issues said Tbilisi would take the case to international organizations.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman flatly denied the UN report’s conclusion, according to Russian news agency Interfax, while the de facto Abkhaz foreign minister rejected the report and accused the UN mission of bias.

“[UNOMIG] did what Georgian wanted. This yet again emphasizes the biased approach of the UN mission to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict,” said the Abkhaz official.

At a diplomatic function in Tbilisi, Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko said attention should be on the “initial cause” of the incident—the presence of Georgian reconnaissance planes over Abkhazia.

The UNOMIG report chides the Georgian government for flying the drone over Abkhazia. Separatist officials reported 16 spy plane flights since last August, according to the report. Tbilisi says it has a right to carry out surveillance of its territory.

“However legitimate this purpose may seem to the Georgian side, it stands to reason that this kind of military intelligence-gathering is bound to be interpreted by the Abkhaz side as a precursor to a military operation, particularly in a period of tense relations between the sides,” the report says.

“A ceasefire regime has a major advantage—preventing war. It does however impose, in return, limitations on the freedom of the sides, including the undertaking by one side of measures that can and will be perceived as threats by the other side.”

After first denying 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 said was a Russian MiG-29 destroying the filming aircraft with a missile.

Abkhaz authorities took credit for the interception, and Russia denied any connection to the attack.

The UNOMIG team judged the video to be authentic, based on analysis of the footage and comparison with land features and eyewitness accounts. The attacking jet was either a Mig-29 or a Su-27, the team concluded.

Georgian officials claimed the Russian jet took off from Gudauta, a former Russian base in Abkhazia which is supposed to be decommissioned. The UNOMIG team suggested that was probable, but not the only possibility.

The Russian denial of the attack cited, among other arguments, the self-incriminating decision of the attacking pilot to fly close to and directly behind the Georgian plane, where the onboard camera could capture the scene.

The UNOMIG team concluded the attacking plane fired a short-range missile at the target because the attack “took place very close to, or even inside, an international airway at a time where civilian aircraft were flying.” A long-ranged attack risked hitting a civilian plane, the report warned.

The report faulted the Georgian government for trying to retroactively deliver “notification” of the April 20 flight, via a statement dated April 19 but delivered the next day to UNOMIG.

UNOMIG earlier told the Georgian Defense Ministry it was in breach of a 1994 ceasefire agreement after concluding that another spy drone destroyed on March 18 probably belonged to Georgia. It also pointed out the threat posed to civilian aircraft in the area by flying—and shooting down—reconnaissance flights over Abkhazia.

The April 20 incident marked an upsurge in tensions days after Moscow moved to bolster links with separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian leaders say the Kremlin’s actions amount to annexation of the breakaway territories. Russia says it is protecting holders of Russian passports in the separatist enclaves.

President Saakashvili called the Russian air attack an “unequivocal act of international aggression,” while Moscow criticized Georgia for dispatching reconnaissance flights over the Abkhazian conflict zone.