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Georgia accuses Russia of dropping missile - 7 August, 2007

Georgia accused Russia of "undisguised aggression" Tuesday, saying two Russian fighter jets intruded on its airspace and fired a missile that landed just meters from a house. Russia denied the claim.

The Interior Ministry said two Russian Su-24 jet bombers illegally entered Georgia's airspace over the Gori region, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of the capital late Monday, and fired a missile that landed 25 meters (yards) from a house on the edge of Shavshvebi village.

The missile did not explode, Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.

"If it had exploded, it would have been a catastrophe," he told The Associated Press. He said sappers were discussing what to do with the missile, which weighs about a ton.

The Foreign Ministry summoned Russian ambassador to Georgia on Tuesday 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, speaking to reporters after receiving the note, denied that a Russian aircraft dropped the weapon.

A spokesman for Russia's air force also denied the accusations. "Russian aircraft haven't conducted any flights over that area and haven't violated Georgia's airspace," spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky said Tuesday in Moscow.

The dispute is the latest between Russia and Georgia, its small ex-Soviet neighbor - a relationship made worse by Georgia's efforts to shed Russia's influence, court Western alliances and to join NATO.

Georgia has long accused Russia of trying to destabilize the country and of backing separatists in its breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which President Mikhail Saakashvili has pledged to bring back into the Georgian fold.

The Gori region where the missile was dropped is next to South Ossetia.

Boris Chochiyev, a deputy prime minister in South Ossetia's separatist government, accused Georgia of dropping the missile in a deliberate "provocation against Russia."

"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."

Russian 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.

He suggested that the plane came from Georgia.

Georgia's Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said in televised comments that Georgian radars spotted the Russian aircraft that dropped the missile.

Georgian officials frequently claim Russian military violations of its airspace - accusations Russia denies.

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 U.N. observer mission in Georgia last month said it was not clear who fired at the Georgian territory.

NATO has announced it would open an information center in the Kodori Gorge.

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