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Tbilisi Vows Peace Process Will Continue, Despite Helicopter Incident
/ 3 Sep.'06 / 23:57
Civil Georgia

Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili said his helicopter, which was also carrying the army's deputy chief of staff, was damaged in an attack staged by a South Ossetian militia on September 3.

No one was injured in the incident, but Okruashvili said “we were falling for about 15 minutes… only the pilot’s experience saved us.”

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said it was “yet another outrageous provocation” staged by the South Ossetian secessionist authorities and Russian peacekeeping command stationed in the conflict zone.

He added that despite numerous provocations, Tbilisi remains committed to peacefully solving the conflict.

“The Georgian side will continue to act in the frames of our peace plan,” PM Nogaideli said.

Russian Maj. Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, the Commander of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces in the South Ossetian conflict zone, confirmed that the Georgian Defense Ministry’s helicopter that was shot at landed safely on Georgian-controlled territory.

According to official Georgian reports, the MI-8 helicopter with Georgian Defense Minister Okruashvili and Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army Col. Zaza Gogava on board was en route from Tbilisi to the newly built Senaki military base in western Georgia.

Fire from a “large caliber weapon” began when the helicopter was flying over South Ossetian-controlled territory, the Georgian Defense Ministry reported.

Meanwhile, the South Ossetian Press and Information Committee reported that the Georgian helicopter “was shot down” at approximately 3:40 pm local time.

The official South Ossetian news agency said in a statement that the helicopter “violated South Ossetian airspace over the Znauri district” in the west of the breakaway region’s capital, Tskhinvali.

“The Georgian Defense Ministry’s helicopter did not respond to [the South Ossetian side’s] multiple warning to change course or land… As violation of the South Ossetian airspace by the Georgian helicopters have become of a frequent nature – the Georgian side has violated South Ossetia’s airspace 240 times in the last five months – the Ossetian side has decided to undertake adequate measures. The helicopter was shot down in the vicinity of Isakikau in the Znauri district,” the South Ossetian Press and Information Committee (PIC) said.

The PIC also said that the Georgian Defense Minister was not on board of the damaged helicopter.

Three hours after the incident Defense Minister Okruashvili convened a press conference at a military base in Gori, a town near the South Ossetian conflict zone.

“Of course they [attackers] were armed Ossetian groups. Everyone should understand that the rampage of these bandits will be stopped very soon, once and forever,” Okruashvili told reporters.

He also said that recently the South Ossetian side has made several statements about the “violation of South Ossetian airspace” by Georgian helicopters.

“’South Ossetian airspace’ does not exist,” Okruashvili said.

He also said that it is not the first time that Georgian helicopters have been shot at.

“A similar incident took place just a few days ago, and the Interior Ministry will make a statement about it,” Okruashvili said.

Shortly after this statement by Okruashvili, the Georgian Interior Ministry announced through its web-site that the Georgian presidential escort helicopter was unsuccessfully targeted over breakaway South Ossetia on August 28.

The helicopter was accompanying another helicopter with President Saakashvili and a group of visiting U.S. Senators on board, who were en route to the Svaneti region, according to the Interior Ministry.

“A Strela-2 anti-aircraft missile was fired at the helicopter over the village of Avnevi [breakaway South Ossetia]. The shell exploded a close distance from the helicopter,” the MIA said, adding that the exploded shell was found and handed over to the U.S. side for further investigation.

Georgian television stations showed footage shot by the Interior Ministry’s press service depicting Georgian law enforcers recovering an exploded shell in an area described as being in the vicinity of Avnevi village.

In February, 2006 the Georgian Interior Ministry announced that it had recovered an IGLA anti-aircraft missile system near the South Ossetian conflict zone which allegedly was meant to down President Saakashvili’s helicopter.

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