Georgia recalls envoy after Russian incursion

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The Independent Online

Georgia recalled its ambassador from Moscow yesterday after Russia said it had sent fighter jets into its neighbour's airspace to prevent troops attacking a separatist region.

Russia acknowledged the fighter sorties a few hours after Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, who was on a visit to Georgia, urged Moscow to help ease tensions in the region, instead of adding to them.

Georgia's pro-Western government is locked in a confrontation with Russia over two Georgian regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – which have rejected Tbilisi's rule and are receiving support from Moscow.

"We will take some aggressive diplomatic steps to respond adequately to Russia's actions. One such step is that from today, we are recalling our ambassador in Russia for consultations," the Georgian Foreign Minister, Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili, told journalists.

Ms Rice, speaking in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, after talks with the President, Mikheil Saakashvili, said Russia "needs to be a part of resolving the problem ... and not contributing to it".

She backed Georgia's bid to join Nato but also urged all sides to halt a surge of violence in the breakaway regions in which at least six people have been killed this month. Russia has accused Georgia of orchestrating the violence, a charge Tbilisi denies. "The violence needs to stop, whoever is perpetrating it, and I have mentioned this to the President," Ms Rice told a news conference.

Russia's foreign ministry said its air force was compelled to act after it received reports that Georgian forces were preparing to launch a military operation on South Ossetia. It said: "As subsequent events showed, this step allowed [us] to cool hot heads in Tbilisi and prevent events developing along military lines."

It was Russia's first admission for a decade that its air force has flown over Georgian territory without permission. When Georgia complained of infringements in the past Moscow always denied it.

Russia's Rossiya tele-vision channel quoted Colonel-General Sergei Makarov, the commander of the North Caucasus military district, as saying that troops could be deployed to the breakaway regions to reinforce peacekeepers already stationed there.

Moscow is competing with the US and European Union for influence over the country. Georgia hosts the only pipelines pumping gas and oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets that bypass Russia.

Early this year Moscow established semi-official ties with the separatist administrations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and beefed up the peacekeeping forces it has had in Abkhazia since the end of a war in the 1990s.

Georgia has accused the Russians of trying to annex its territory and Tbilisi's Western allies have warned that Russia was stoking tensions.