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Breaking!!! Missile shot at senator McCain's chopper!!
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09/04/2006 06:30 PM
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Georgia and Ossetia on Heightened Alert
By Paata Kurashvili
The Associated Press
TBILISI, Georgia -- The defense chief of separatist South Ossetia said Monday that his forces had been placed on heightened alert one day after South Ossetian forces fired at a military helicopter carrying Georgia's defense minister.
Anatoly Barankevich, the defense minister of South Ossetia's unrecognized government, said the alert was called after a Georgian military column was observed moving toward the region.
Georgian Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili said he was aboard the helicopter that came under fire Sunday afternoon as it flew over South Ossetia. The aircraft was damaged but landed safely in Georgian-controlled territory and no one was hurt, Okruashvili said.
South Ossetian officials initially said the helicopter was shot at with heavy-caliber machine guns after it was repeatedly warned that it had violated South Ossetian airspace. RIA-Novosti, however, quoted Barankevich as saying the helicopter fired on South Ossetian forces first.
The incident sharply aggravated tensions between the Georgian government and South Ossetian authorities, who have run the province during more than a decade of de facto separation from Georgia. South Ossetia seeks to become part of Russia, which has close contact with the separatist government but does not formally recognize it.
Russia's close contacts with South Ossetia -- and with Abkhazia, another separatist Georgian province -- are a perpetual sore point in relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. Russia has peacekeeping forces in both regions and the Georgian government accuses them of siding with the separatists.
Georgia's Ministry for Conflict Resolution renewed the sharp criticism in a statement Monday.
Sunday's helicopter shooting "once more confirms that the mechanism of the peacekeeping operation, under complete Russian control ... single-mindedly serves not a full political resolution and reconciliation of a divided society, but the preservation of a mechanism of unleashing provocations and military actions."
Russian ambassador-at-large Yury Popov said in turn that "the fault is on the Georgian side, because the Georgian-Ossetian conflict air zone was violated," RIA-Novosti reported.
Georgia's Interior Ministry also said Sunday that in a similar incident last week, a surface-to-air missile was fired at a helicopter escorting a U.S. Senate delegation led by Senator John McCain. The aircraft was not damaged and U.S. authorities have been notified, the ministry said.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore said she had no information about the incident.
Speaking about Sunday's incident to reporters in Gori, a town near South Ossetia, Okruashvili said the Mi-8 helicopter came under large-caliber machine-gun fire on Sunday from a forested area during a flight to a base in western Georgia.
Okruashvili, a military chief whose statements have angered South Ossetian leaders and Russian officials in the past, said he did not recognize any airspace as belonging to South Ossetia's government.
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli called the incident "one more provocation in a series of many provocations," Itar-Tass reported.
Interfax quoted South Ossetia spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva as saying Georgian aircraft had entered South Ossetia's airspace without permission 240 times over the past five months.
Tensions have grown since the January 2004 election of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has vowed to establish control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Georgian government accuses Russia of supporting the separatists in a bid to prolong its centuries-old domination of Georgia, which is courting the United States and NATO.
Russia has close contacts with the South Ossetian government, although it stops short of formally recognizing it, and grants Russian passports to the region's residents.
[link to www.themoscowtimes.com]
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