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Russia Admits Georgian Fly-Over as Rice Visits Region

Russian officials have admitted that they ordered the air force to fly over Georgia's rebel region of South Ossetia in a maneuver aimed "to cool hot heads in Tbilisi." The US' top diplomat didn't like to hear it.

Russian jets fly across a Russian church tower

Russian jets crossed South Ossetia a day before Rice arrived in Georgia

The statement came as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Tbilisi on Thursday affirmed US support for Georgia's pro-Western leadership in its increasingly rancorous relations with Moscow.

Rice, meeting with US-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili, reprimanded Russian backing of Georgia's breakaway provinces with escalating conflict in the Caucasus region.

Russia "needs to be a part of resolving the problem and solving the problem and not contributing to it," Rice was quoted by news agency RIA-Novosti as saying. "I have said it to the Russians publicly. I have said it privately."

Russia charged that the overflight, a day before Rice's arrival in Tbilisi, was needed to prevent an attack by Georgia after its soldiers were briefly detained in South Ossetia.

"There was an urgent need to undertake tangible measures in order to prevent bloodshed," the foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday.

"Jets of the Russian air forces conducted a brief fly-over," the ministry said. "This move cooled hot heads in Tbilisi and helped to prevent forceful development of the scenario, which was more than real."

US mediation

Rice on Thursday, July 10, promised US mediation in promoting a peace process and called for an end to "violence" in Georgia's rebel regions.

Potential conflict between Tbilisi and its Russian-backed separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has set off alarm bells in Washington, which counts Georgia as a key ally in the region.

A series of bombings that killed four people and injured dozens last week gave a grim edge to recent wranglings between Tbilisi and Moscow.

"We give a high priority to the peaceful settlement of conflicts in Georgia," Rice said on Wednesday, promising US mediation in resolving the frozen conflict.

But heavy warnings from Russia and sharp sallies by Rice as she began her visit Wednesday belied a longstanding battle for influence in the strategic region, to which Georgia's separatist regions threaten to become a proxy.

"I'm going to visit a friend and I don't expect much comment about the United States going to visit a friend," she shot back in response to Moscow's criticism of US support for Saakashvili.

Backing for Georgia's NATO bid

Rice also clearly reaffirmed US backing for Georgia's bid to join NATO, a proposal that many see as having sparked the recent escalations in the Caucasus region as Russia manifests its objections to any eastward enlargement of the alliance.

Russia strengthened diplomatic ties with rebel provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where most residents have been offered citizenship, following NATO's promise to remain open to Georgia's candidacy.

Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh on Thursday paid a not-uncommon visit to Moscow to discuss setting up bilateral government ties with Moscow, Georgian news agencies reported. Tbilisi has protested such steps as a de facto annexation of its territory.

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