MOSCOW/TBLISI (Reuters) - Georgia recalled its ambassador from Moscow on Thursday after Russia said it had sent its fighter jets into its neighbour’s airspace to prevent Georgian troops attacking a separatist region.
Russia acknowledged the fighter sorties a few hours after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to the Georgian capital, urged Moscow to help ease tensions in the strategic 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 in order to respond adequately to Russia’s actions. One such step is that from today, we are recalling our ambassador in Russia for consultations,” Georgian Foreign Minister Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili told a news briefing.
Rice, speaking in Tbilisi after talks with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, said Russia “needs to be a part of resolving the problem and solving the problem and not contributing to it”.
Rice backed Georgia’s bid to join NATO, but also urged all sides to halt a surge of violence in the breakaway regions this month in which at least six people have been killed.
Russia has accused Georgia of orchestrating the violence, a charge Tbilisi denies.
“The violence needs to stop, and whoever is perpetrating it, and I have mentioned this to the president, there should not be violence,” Rice told a news conference.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the air force was compelled to act after it received reports Georgian forces were preparing to launch a military operation on South Ossetia.
“In order to clarify the situation, aircraft of the Russian air force carried out a brief flight over the territory of South Ossetia,” it added.
“As subsequent events showed, this step allowed (us) to cool hot heads in Tbilisi and prevent events developing along military lines, the likelihood of which was more than real.”
It was Russia’s first admission for at least a decade that its air force has flown over Georgian territory without permission. Georgia has said in the past that Russia trespassed in its airspace but Moscow has always denied it.
Russia’s Rossiya television channel quoted a military commander as saying Russia could deploy troops to the breakaway regions to reinforce peacekeepers it already has there.
“Russia’s troops in the North Caucasus region could be sent ... in the event of an escalation of the situation,” the station quoted Colonel-General Sergei Makarov, commander of the North Caucasus military district, as saying.
Moscow is competing with the United States and European Union for influence over Georgia. The country hosts the only pipelines pumping gas and oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets without going through Russia.
Early this year Russia 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 accused Russia of trying to annexe its territory and Tbilisi’s Western allies said Russia was stoking tensions. Russia said it acted to defend the breakaway regions from Georgian aggression.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Tbilisi and Tatiana Ustinova in Moscow