Georgia says stopped drone flights over Abkhazia

The conflict has become a major source of friction between Russia and the West.

Georgia says stopped drone flights over Abkhazia

Georgia said on Friday it had stopped flights by spy planes over breakaway Abkhazia as Western nations prepared a diplomatic drive to calm tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow that have raised fears of war.

A pilotless Georgian drone was shot down over Abkhazia on April 20 by what a U.N. report said on Monday was a Russian fighter. Moscow has denied involvement.

The report also said the Georgian reconnaissance flight violated a 1994 cease-fire agreement between Georgia and Russian-backed Abkhazia, a region on the Black Sea that is smaller than Cyprus and has fewer than 200,000 people.

The conflict has become a major source of friction between Russia and the West, which supports Georgia and wants to see it eventually join NATO.

The instability in the South Caucasus has also worried the West because the region is seen as a vital part of an energy corridor between the Caspian Sea oil fields and world markets.

Georgian U.N. Ambassador Irakli Alasania warned after addressing a Security Council meeting on the crisis that his country reserved its right to resume drone flights if it saw a threat from Abkhazia.

"I openly said that since the (U.N.) report was issued, (the) Georgian side stopped overflights," he told reporters. "It doesn't mean that we will not use these military capabilities if the threat will occur in the region."

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he was "quite encouraged" by the Georgian halt to overflights although he regretted the warning of a possible resumption -- something he said Alasania had not mentioned at the council meeting.

In the closed-door meeting, Churkin said he had called on Georgia "to stop its policy of provocation," reduce its military presence on the border with Abkhazia and sign an agreement with the rebel region on abstention from force.

The envoy referred back to Moscow's statements denying Russian involvement in shooting down the drone but did not himself specifically deny it. Instead, he called for a "thorough investigation" of the incident.

The council adjourned its meeting without taking action. It is to hold another debate on Abkhazia in July.

To try to calm tensions, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is expected to visit Tbilisi and Abkhazia next week, while U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, Washington's point man for the region, will go to Moscow.

A delegation of ambassadors from EU member states traveled to the Abkhazia capital, Sukhumi, on Friday.

The EU wants first to find a way of cooling the temperature and then "to see what can be done to eventually move towards a resolution of the conflict," Peter Semneby, EU special representative for the South Caucasus, told Reuters.


Abkhazia threw off Georgian rule after a war in the early 1990s and runs its own affairs, though no state has recognized its independence. Tbilisi has vowed to restore its control and bring back hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians who were driven out in the fighting.

Tension has risen since Russia sent extra troops to Abkhazia and intensified ties with the Abkhazians last month, moves Tbilisi says amount to a creeping annexation of the region.

Vladimir Putin, at the time Russian president, said he acted to protect Abkhazians from an imminent Georgian attack.

At the United Nations, Alasania said he had called for the Russian troops, who constitute a Commonwealth of Independent States peace-keeping force in Abkhazia, to be replaced by a U.N.-led police and security force.

The EU's Solana is expected to encourage Tbilisi's tentative dialogue with the separatists, launched at the height of the crisis earlier this month when a Georgian envoy held secret talks in Abkhazia.

In early June, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili will meet Russia's Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg, their first contact since Medvedev succeeded Putin as president.

Most observers believe an interim peace deal may be on the table, possibly involving security guarantees for the Abkhazians, the return of ethnic Georgian refugees and measures to protect Georgia's sovereignty.

Separatist foreign minister Sergei Shamba was skeptical about chances of progress. "That will depend on the Georgian position," he told Reuters. "The ball is in their court."

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would take part in a study of the material about the Georgian drone, if all sides to the conflict, including the Abkhazians, were involved, Interfax news agency reported.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 31 Mayıs 2008, 16:03