Russian jet shot down Georgian spy drone, UN says
MOSCOW: A United Nations investigation has concluded that an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance aircraft destroyed last month was struck by an air-to-air missile fired from a Russian fighter jet.
The report, which also suggested that Russia's actions call into question its role as a credible peacekeeper in Georgia's territorial disputes, presented the Kremlin with a diplomatic embarrassment over its policy in Abkhazia, a separatist region in western Georgia that receives Russian support, and its statements about its military activities there.
Moreover, the report detailed a degree of military recklessness not previously reported, noting that the fighter plane's "interception took place very close to, or even inside, an international airway" at a time when "civilian aircraft were flying."
The Russian military, which had claimed that all of its pilots were on vacation the day the drone was shot down - and then that an American F-18 shot down the drone - again denied a role in the incident.
But it offered no specific evidence or rebuttals against the finely nuanced accounts and analyses of the flight paths of the drone and the intercepting aircraft, which were prepared by a fact-finding team of military aviation experts and released Monday.
The Georgian foreign minister seized on the report as verification of Russia's lack of neutrality and said the findings would be used to try to remove Russian troops from any peacekeeping role on Georgian soil.
At the center of the report was the fate of an Israeli-made Hermes 450 drone, which on April 20 made a highly unusual video recording of its own destruction in the sky over Abkhazia.
The recording shows a twin-tailed fighter jet bank into view, approach the drone and release a missile that rushes toward the lens, leaving a dense trail of white smoke.
The video ends in a blur as the missile nears the lens and explodes. As part of its earlier denials, Russia had emphatically declared the Georgian video a fake. The investigators concluded otherwise.
By examining the available evidence and interviewing eyewitnesses and participants, and by correlating the radar records, the drone's video and maps of the ground, the fact-finding team "concluded that the video was authentic."
The team also concluded that the attacking plane was either a Russian MiG-29 or Su-27, and that it fired an AA-11 Archer heat-seeking missile, which was detonated near the drone by its internal proximity fuse.
The report suggested that the fighter pilot had flown close enough to the drone to be recorded because he was near airspace used by civilian aircraft and had to avoid using longer-range weapons.
Russia has served as a regional peacekeeper since Georgian and Abkhaz forces entered an uneasy cease-fire in the 1990s. The Russians have at least 2,500 soldiers on the ground under a mandate approved by the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The UN report noted that the use of force by any other party, such as a fighter plane scrambled from Russia, is "fundamentally inconsistent" with Russia's role as a peacekeeper and "undercuts the cease-fire and separation of forces regime." It also raised "possible considerations under international law."
The report also criticized the Georgian government, saying the use of drones over Abkhazia violated the separation of forces agreement and that "this kind of military intelligence-gathering is bound to be interpreted by the Abkhaz side as a precursor to a military operation, particularly in a period of tense relations between the two sides." It noted that the United Nations had notified Georgia on April 7 that the drones violated the cease-fire agreement.
Officials in Abkhazia had claimed that the Abkhaz military had downed the drone with one of the de facto government's L-39 jets, a dated airframe with a single tail fin that is typically used for training and bears little resemblance to the jet seen on the video.
The report made clear that the United Nations did not accept the Abkhaz explanation and that Abkhazia refused to cooperate with investigators.
Sergei Shamba, Abkhazia's foreign minister, said he disagreed with the conclusion that Russia downed the drone. "It does not have any significance to us," he said by telephone. "Let them think whatever they want."
But he welcomed the criticism of Georgia's use of reconnaissance drones.
"We know from this report that Georgia violated the agreements and that the United Nations more than once appealed to Georgia to stop these flights," he said.
Eka Tkeshelashvili, the Georgian foreign minister, said the UN report established at last a point that Georgia has long tried to make: that Russia is not a neutral party in the dispute between Georgia and Abkhazia and should not be allowed a peacekeeping role.
"The need for changing the peacekeeping format is clear," she said by telephone. "Russia has established itself as a participant in the conflict."