Georgia's president accused Russia of trying to sow panic and influence internal politics in its small southern neighbor after a one-ton missile dropped by an aircraft landed near a house. Russia denied its aircraft had fired the missile, which did not explode.
Georgia said two Russian Su-24 jets entered Georgia's airspace over the Gori region, about 60 kilometers (35 miles) northwest of the capital late on Monday, and fired a missile that landed 25 meters (yards) from a house on the edge of Shavshvebi village. "This was a provocation aimed only at one thing, at disrupting the peace in Georgia, which would cause panic in society and ultimately change the political course of the country," President Mikhail Saakashvili said on Tuesday at the site.
Col Alexander Drobyshevsky, a spokesman for Russia's air force, denied the accusations. "Russian aircraft haven't conducted any flights over that area and haven't violated Georgia's airspace," he said.
Georgia has long accused Russia of trying to destabilize the ex-Soviet republic and of backing separatists in its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Saakashvili has pledged to bring back under central government control.
The Gori region where the missile was dropped is next to South Ossetia.
The Foreign Ministry summoned Russia's ambassador to hand 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 told reporters after receiving the note that Russian aircraft had not dropped the weapon. "It was not in Russia's interest," he said.
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. Kulakhmetov suggested that the plane came from Georgia. Television footage of the crater caused by the missile indicated that it had fallen straight down, rather than entering the ground at an angle, which it would do if it had been fired. Sappers were shown exploding the missile.
Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said in televised comments that Georgian radars spotted the Russian aircraft that dropped the missile. His ministry said in a statement that the planes had taken off from the Russian military air field in North Ossetia a region on the border with Georgia.
Salome Zurabishvili, a former foreign minister who now heads an opposition party, suggested that the missile had been dropped by a Georgian aircraft in an incident staged by Merabishvili. Relations between Russia and Georgia have been strained ever since Saakashvili was elected president in early 2004 and made clear his intentions to move the former Soviet republic closer to the West.
Both sides on Tuesday accused the other of obstructing efforts to resolve the situation 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," Deputy Foreign Minister Nika Vashakidze said. "Our response must be very firm." Boris Chochiyev, a deputy prime minister in South Ossetia's separatist government, accused Georgia of dropping the missile. "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."
Russia's Foreign Ministry called the accusations a typical action used by Georgia before to prevent a peaceful solution in South Ossetia. The ministry also pointed to Georgia's past claims of Russian military violations of its airspace which Russia has denied.
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 UN observer mission in Georgia last month said it was not clear who fired at the Georgian territory.
At the United Nations, a spokesman said the world body had no firsthand information on the situation, and noted that the UN mission in Georgia was limited to the Abkhazian conflict, not that in South Ossetia.
"The UN is not going to investigate the incident, which is beyond our peacekeeping role in Georgia," associate spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters at UN headquarters in New York. "The site of this alleged incident is outside of our area of operations."
In Washington, the State Department condemned the attack but said it was too early to say who might have been behind it. "What we do know is that there was an attack on Georgia and we absolutely condemn any attack on Georgia," said Matt Bryza, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs who specializes in the region. "We firmly support Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
He called for Russia to drop objections to two key confidence-building measures recommended by the Organization for Security and Coopertation in Europe (OSCE) designed to ease tensions: doubling from 12 to 24 the number of OSCE military observers in South Ossetia and the installation of a new radar tracking system to monitor overflights.
"What this (latest incident) shows is that there is a danger this conflict could escalate unless the Russians agree," Bryza said.