Aircraft of the Russian air force conducted a brief flight over South Ossetia on July 8, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed on Thursday.
It said the maneuver aimed “to cool hot heads in Tbilisi.”
This is the first time in recent years that Russia has confirmed such an intrusion into Georgian airspace.
The Georgian Ministry of Defense said on July 9 that four aircraft intruded into Georgian airspace over South Ossetia from the Russian Federation in the evening on July 8. Two aircraft entered Georgian airspace at about 8:11pm and nine minutes later two others followed, the Georgian Air Force said.
Russia, which made no comment about the allegation on July 9, broke its silence on July 10, saying it had sent aircraft in order to help defuse rising tensions in South Ossetia following the detention of four Georgian soldiers by the South Ossetian side.
“On July 8 the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone significantly escalated,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in its statement. “Information has been received, including from the command of the [Russian] peacekeeping force about a possible incursion by Georgian forces under the pretext of releasing four [Georgian] servicemen, who were detained by the South Ossetian law enforcement agencies.”
“There was an urgent need to undertake tangible measures in order to prevent bloodshed,” it continued. “In order to clarify the situation, jets of the Russian Air Force conducted a brief flight over South Ossetian territory. As further developments have shown, this move cooled hot heads in Tbilisi and helped to prevent a forceful development of the scenario, which was more than real.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry did not specify the number of aircraft sent to Georgia.
The Georgian Air Defense said its radar had picked up the four Russian aircraft 80 kilometers deep inside the Russian Federation and had tracked them crossing the Georgian border over the Roki Tunnel (linking South Ossetia with Russia). The radar, according to the Georgian Air Force, shows the aircraft remaining in Georgian airspace for about forty minutes, circling around an area north of Tskhinvali, the capital of breakaway South Ossetia, and then flying back to the Russian Federation.
Four Georgian soldiers were arrested by the South Ossetian side overnight on July 7. After their release on July 8, Mamuka Kurashvili, a Georgian MoD official in charge of overseeing peacekeeping operations in the conflict zones, said that Georgian forces had been in combat readiness to carry out an operation if the South Ossetian side had refused to free the four servicemen. Earlier on the same day, President Saakashvili ordered the Interior Ministry to secure the release of the four Georgians.
President Saakashvili said at a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Tbilisi earlier on July 10 that Russian aircraft had flown “close to the capital,” which was “a worrisome development.”