Russia on Thursday admitted its fighter jets overflew the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia in a sortie that took place just hours before Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, visited Tbilisi with a message of support.
It was the first time in years of tension between Moscow and Tbilisi that Russia has made such an admission, even though it has frequently been accused by Georgia of flying warplanes over its territory. The foreign ministry statement is the latest escalation in a dispute in which Russia has backed South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second Georgian separatist territory, partly to put pressure on Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-west president, and block Tbilisi’s efforts to join Nato.
Moscow said the “brief flight” took place on Tuesday to prevent an attack by Georgian forces. Georgia condemned the statement as an “unprecedented acknowledgement of aggression”.
Speaking in Tbilisi on Thursday, Ms Rice criticised Moscow, saying it needed “to be part of resolving the problem and solving the problem and not contributing to it”. But she also appealed for calm, saying: “The violence needs to stop and whoever is perpetrating it, and I have mentioned this to the president [Mr Saakashvili], there should not be violence.”
Mr Saakashvili said the Russian sortie was “a very worrisome development” and Tbilisi recalled its ambassador to Moscow in protest.
Later, American officials travelling with Ms Rice said Washington was pushing for talks over the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, involving the US, Russia, UK, France, Germany and Georgia – plus the Abkhaz separatists. But they gave no further details.
As Abkhazia is much larger than South Ossetia it is regarded as the more significant of the two disputed regions, although violence has flared in both.
Abkhazia has been hit by four explosions, including one in which four people died while two more were killed this month in fighting between Georgian and South Ossetian forces.
This year, tensions flared along the Inguri River dividing Georgian and Abkhazian territories after a Russian jet shot down an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance drone.