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Top peacekeeper says Georgia hurried to destroy missile evidence

MOSCOW, August 9 (RIA Novosti) - The commander of joint peacekeeping forces in the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict zone said Thursday that peacekeepers could not identify a missile allegedly dropped by a Russian plane because Georgia hurried to destroy it.

Georgia's Defense Ministry earlier said it had proof that a Russian Su-24 Fencer tactical bomber violated Georgia's airspace Monday and fired a Raduga Kh-58 (NATO codename AS-11) anti-radar missile at a Georgian radar near a village 65 kilometers (about 40 miles) northwest of the Georgian capital and near the border with breakaway South Ossetia.

The 640-kilogram (1,400-pound) missile did not explode, but has further fueled tensions between the former Soviet allies, whose relations have been strained ever since pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power on the back of the so-called "rose revolution" in early 2004.

"When a group of peacekeepers arrived at the site early on August 7, the Georgians had already removed all major parts of the missile and transported them to an unidentified location," Marat Kulakhmetov said.

"For some reason, Georgia hurried to destroy the warhead before our arrival," he said, adding that the missile left a crater about three meters deep and over a meter in diameter.

The markings on the missile, had it not been destroyed, could have allowed independent experts to determine the country of origin and a military unit where it had been deployed.

Kulakhmetov also said that Tbilisi denied information of an intruding aircraft after receiving his report the day before accusing Russia of doing so.

"On August 6, when the incident occurred, I contacted the leadership of the Georgian part of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces and informed them of the intrusion and the launch [of a missile]. A report followed one hour later that the [Georgian] Armed Forces denied any intrusion whatsoever," the official said.

Meanwhile, Russia has vehemently repudiated involvement in the incident, demanding a thorough probe and saying it was "a new provocation" staged by Tbilisi to thwart the peace process in the region. South Ossetia echoed the accusations, saying the aircraft came from Georgia's side.

The Russian Air Force Chief of Staff said Thursday Georgia's accusation that Russia violated its airspace was "political speculation."

Lieutenant-General Igor Khvorov said at a news conference: "We did not carry out any scheduled flights there, as we have enough training grounds of our own. All these accusations are political speculation."

However, Georgian experts are insisting that it was a Russian-made anti-radar guided missile and that the country has no Su-24 planes in service with the Georgian Air Force.

Tbilisi has demanded that the European Union step in and that the UN Security Council hold an emergency session on the matter.

South Ossetia, which declared its independence from Georgia following a bloody conflict that left hundreds dead in 1991-1992, has always been a sensitive issue in bilateral relations between Georgia and Russia.

Georgian authorities are seeking to bring it back under their control, and have accused Russia, which has peacekeepers in the area, along with Georgian and South Ossetian troops, of supporting separatist elements.

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