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Tension between Georgia and its self-proclaimed republic of South Ossetia has escalated
Tension between Georgia and its self-proclaimed republic of South Ossetia has escalated after the breakaway region shot down a Georgian helicopter for allegedly violating its air space. On Sunday afternoon, South Ossetian air defense forces shot at a Mi-8 helicopter with the Georgian defense minister and deputy chief of the General Staff on board. The pilot managed to land the helicopter and none was hurt. "South Ossetia has a habit of accusing Georgian helicopters of violating its so-called air space," said Irakly Okruashvili, who was traveling from the capital, Tbilisi, in southeast Georgia to a base in the west over South Ossetia when the incident happened. "But there is no such thing, and ... we will soon put an end to this." Relations between Georgia and the northern province of South Ossetia have been tense since the early 1990s when the republic proclaimed independence after a bloody conflict with Georgia. A trilateral peacekeeping force - Russian, Georgian and South Ossetian - maintains a fragile peace in the conflict zone, but Georgia is seeking to re-establish full control over the republic and introduce international peacekeepers to the area. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said the incident was "blatant provocation", but added, "Georgia will proceed within the plan of peaceful resolution of the conflict." On Sunday afternoon, South Ossetia said it had to shoot down the helicopter. "The pilots did not react to our calls for it to land or change its flight path," the republic's spokesperson Irina Gagloyeva said. "Considering that Georgia's violations of South Ossetian air space have become frequent, a decision was made to shoot down the helicopter." Anatoly Barankevich, the unrecognized republic's defense minister, said the helicopter was the first to open fire at the republic's forces. "They opened fire at the South Ossetian officers from a machinegun, forcing the South Ossetian side to respond," he said. The Georgian Interior Ministry first confirmed that the aircraft had been forced down. "We can confirm that our helicopter was shot down in South Ossetia," said Shota Khizanishvili, a spokesman for the ministry. But a few hours later, Georgian, South Ossetian and peacekeeping representatives all said that the helicopter had continued its flight despite being damaged by the gunfire. Marat Kulakhmetov of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces in the conflict zone said, "The Mi-8 was shot at but managed to reach Georgian territory without anyone being injured." He said Georgian soldiers had confirmed that the craft had landed in Georgia. However, South Ossetia's Irina Gagloyeva said Sunday night that the Georgian helicopter had landed three kilometers away from the Georgian border. "The nearest border guard post of South Ossetia is three kilometers away [from the landing site], and Georgian soldiers managed to evacuate the helicopter's passengers before South Ossetian officers arrived," she said.
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