MOSCOW Georgian allegations that Russia dropped a missile on its soil are aimed at discrediting Moscow, Russia's most senior soldier said on Thursday as the United States appeared to back Georgia in the row.
The one-ton missile, which landed in a farmer's field on Monday but did not detonate, re-ignited simmering tensions between Russia and its pro-Western neighbor, Georgia, and has now also drawn in Washington.
In the most strongly worded statement so far from a Russian official, Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of staff of the Russian military, suggested Tbilisi had staged the missile incident itself to discredit Russia.
"I am convinced that this is a provocation on the part of Georgia," Itar-Tass news agency quoted Baluyevsky as saying. "It is a provocation against ... Russia as a whole."
Georgia has asked for a special session of the United Nations Security Council to debate what it described as an "act of aggression" against it.
The United States, which provides military and financial aid to Georgia, initially issued a cautious reaction, urging both sides to tone down their rhetoric.
But U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was more explicit on Wednesday, saying the United States "condemns the August 6 rocket attack against Georgia".
"We praise Georgia's continuing restraint in the face of this air attack and call for the urgent clarification of the facts surrounding this incident," he said.
The missile incident has caused a flurry of diplomatic activity. Russia's Foreign Ministry said telephone conversations had taken place about it with the U.S. State Department and Europe's main security and rights watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Moscow and Tbilisi have been locked in dispute since U.S.-educated lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili was swept to power four years ago and assertively pulled his state of five million people out of Moscow's orbit.
Following spats over trade and spying allegations, Moscow has banned imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, two major revenue earners, and cut off air, sea and postal links with its neighbor.
Georgia's two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are also a source of friction. Moscow provides financial and moral support to the separatists, aid Tbilisi alleges is aimed at undermining Georgian sovereignty.
The missile, which Georgia said was fired by a Russian jet trespassing in its airspace, landed near South Ossetia.
In Moscow, Lieutenant-General Igor Khvorov, the air force chief of staff, flatly denied any Russian role in the missile incident.
"It's very hard to talk about things that never happened," Khvorov told a news conference. "We have enough training grounds of our own. I repeat: we made no flights whatsoever, and as for the rest, it is just sheer political speculation."
(Additional reporting by David Morgan in Washington and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow)