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Russian fighter shot down spy drone, says UN

A UN report has accused Russia of shooting down an unmanned Georgian spy plane over the breakaway region of Abkhazia last month.

The report, by the UN observer mission in Georgia, is likely to further increase tension in Abkhazia, a Russia-backed region that is officially part of Georgia but broke away in the early 1990s.

Georgia accused Russia of shooting down its drone on 20 April, releasing footage of what it said was a MiG-29 fighter plane, which neither Georgia or Abkhaz separatist forces possess, firing on the drone. Yesterday's report said that the video seemed genuine and that the plane flew from the direction of Russia: "Absent compelling evidence to the contrary, this leads to the conclusion that the aircraft belonged to the Russian air force," the UN said.

The Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, said that this was "the first time when an international organisation, especially the United Nations, has, without any doubt, blamed the Russian Federation for aggression against Georgia".

In an appeal for Western support, he claimed his struggle with Russia was a struggle against neo-imperialism: "Georgia lies on the frontier of European freedom and it is here where the future fate of Europe and world order is being determined."

Russia has denied the claim all along, and reiterated its denial yesterday, but it becomes less plausible after the UN findings.

Russian MiG-29 apparently shooting down a drone in Georgia

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been thorny since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and worsened when Mr Saakashvili took power in the rose revolution of 2003 and promised to bring Georgia into Nato and the EU. The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, appeared during his presidency to have a personal grudge against Mr Saakashvili.

Many think the new Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, will pursue a less aggressive foreign policy and yesterday, before the UN report became public, he sent Mr Saakashvili a note congratulating him on the country's independence day and saying that he wanted Russia and Georgia to build more constructive relations. In an interview with The Independent last week, Mr Saakashvili said that he had tried to telephone Mr Medvedev several times, but "was always connected to Putin".

Some Russian analysts said they believed the drone had indeed been shot down by a Russian plane, but that the Georgian side should not have been flying the drones over Abkhazia in the first place.

"Everyone talks about it as though this is Russia trying to take over Abkhazia," said Sergey Markedonov, a Moscow-based Caucasus analyst. "But what were the Georgians doing flying the drones over a conflict zone? It's illegal." The UN report also reiterated that it considered the flights illegal.

The Abkhazian authorities claim to have downed seven drones over the past few months, with Russia and Georgia accusing each other of spoiling for war. "It's unlikely that there will be a full-scale war there, but there are so many unpredictable factors that the possibility for a small conflict to start is always there," Mr Markedonov said.

The renewed tension over Abkhazia comes at a time when Mr Saakashvili is facing domestic political unrest. Thousands of protesters rallied in Tbilisi yesterday to demonstrate against the results of last week's parliamentary elections, which gave a huge majority to Mr Saakashvili's party.

Opposition leaders promised to continue the protests, boycott the new parliament and picket the parliamentary building. Mr Saakashvili said yesterday that he wanted "constructive dialogue" with the opposition, and that "everyone should respect the will of the Georgian people".

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