MOSCOW – Two unmanned Georgian spy planes were shot down Sunday over the country's breakaway region of Abkhazia, an Abkhazian official said.
Georgia denied the claim, which was certain to increase tension in a country at the center of a struggle for influence between Russia and the West.
Strained relations between Georgia and Russia, which has close ties to Abkhazia, have worsened since a similar incident two weeks ago. Georgia accused Moscow of shooting down a pilotless Georgian reconnaissance plane over Abkhazia. Russia denied involvement, and separatist Abkhazian officials said their forces shot it down.
On Sunday, Ruslan Kishmaria, a representative of Abkhazia's president, said two planes had been shot down by Abkhazian anti-aircraft forces aided by aviation. Authorities were searching for fragments of the planes, he said.
Georgian Foreign Ministry official Maka Gigauri dismissed the claims as "completely absurd disinformation" aimed at increasing tension in the area.
Conflicting claims over aircraft downings add to tension between Georgia and Russia, which is strengthening its support for Abkhazia and another Georgian separatist region as Georgia's U.S.-allied President Mikhail Saakashvili pushes for NATO membership for his country. Georgia is strategically located on an key Westward route for Caspian Sea oil and gas riches.
Russia has bristled at NATO's eastward expansion, and top officials have drawn a line in the sand around Georgia and Ukraine, saying they will do their best to keep the Western-leaning ex-Soviet republics out of the alliance.
NATO declined to grant Georgia a road map for membership at a summit last month, despite vocal U.S. support, but the alliance assured the Caucasus Mountain nation, long dominated by Russia, that it will eventually join.
Russia has responded to Georgia's NATO push and Kosovo's Western-backed independence declaration by stepping up support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have had de-facto independence since breaking away from central government control in early 1990s wars.
Russia has not recognized the two regions' longstanding independence claims, a move that would badly damage ties with the West and could spark war with Georgia, but it has strengthened its ties with their separatist governments.
In the past month, Russia has established legal ties with Abkhazia and has increased the size of its contingent of peacekeeping forces in the Black Sea province. Georgia accuses the troops of siding with the separatists and wants them replaced with international forces.
The alleged plane downings will likely lead to further accusations from Abkhazia and Russia that Georgia is gearing up for a military offensive aimed to take control of the breakaway region.
Saakashvili says he has no such plans, but has vowed to establish control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia while offering them a measure of autonomy. Russian officials have suggested that if Georgia joins NATO it will have to give up its claim to the regions.