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Russia says its air force flew over Georgia region

Russian peacekeeping troops sit at an air defence artillery in their camp near the village of Kokhora bordering the Gali district in the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia May 4, 2008. REUTERS/Vladimir Popov

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Thursday that its air force had flown over Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia this week because it believed Tbilisi was preparing to attack the region.

"The need arose to take urgent and active measures to prevent bloodshed and keep the situation within peaceful bounds," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement on the Web site.

“In order to clarify the situation, aircraft of the Russian air force carried out a brief flight over the territory of South Ossetia,” the ministry said. “As subsequent events showed, this step allowed (us) to cool hot heads in Tbilisi and prevent events developing along military lines, the likelihood of which was more than real.”

The statement is Russia’s first admission for at least a decade that its airforce has flown over Georgian territory. Georgia has alleged in the past that Russia trespassed in its airspace but Moscow has always denied it.

Tension has been rising in Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They are the focus of friction between the pro-Western government in Tbilisi and neighboring Russia, which supports the separatists.

Georgia had earlier said Russian fighter jets entered its airspace late on Tuesday, less than 24 hours before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in the Georgian capital for a visit.

Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Christian Lowe