MOSCOW -- Georgia blamed Russia Sunday for an air raid on the Black Sea coast city of Sukhumi, where Georgian forces have been fighting separatists for the past half year.
A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman acknowledged a Russian attack but said it came in retaliation for shelling from the Georgia side. Russian military officials denied striking a Sukhumi residential neighborhood, as alleged by Georgia, and said only military targets were struck.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze inspected the damage in Sukhumi and called it 'a barbarous action,' according to the independent Interfax news agency. He promised an 'adequate' reaction by Georgia without being specific.
The ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, on Russia's southern border, has been embroiled in violent conflicts with Ossetian separatists in the north-central part of the country and with Abkhazian separatists in the northwest. Both breakaway regions border Russia, which has found itself politically engaged if not militarily.
Sukhumi, the Abkhazian capital, is controlled by Georgian forces, but much of the rest of Abkhazia has resisted Georgian attempts to rein in the secessionists by force. Before fighting broke out last summer, Sukhumi was a vacation resort.
The Georgia news agency said an SU-25 Russian military plane bombed a residential area of Sukhumi, destroying dozens of homes and killing one man, the father of the Sukhumi-based Russian Itar-Tass news agency correspondent.
A Russian defense official, who asked that his name not be used, told United Press International that Russian forces did indeed launch an attack. He said a Russian paratrooper division stationed in the Abkhazian town of Eshery just up the coast from Sukhumi 'came under repeated fire from the Georgia side.'
In retaliation 'a Russian air force military airplane delivered a response fire strike to the spotted fire targets that were shelling Eshery,' he said, adding that 'accusations about bombing residential quarters are groundless.'
The Russia military spokesman said the strike was justified under Moscow's policy of retaliation. 'The response fire strike was delivered in keeping with the decision that in case of attack Russian servicemen must spot the target and strike back.'
Georgia said the attack was evidence of Russia siding with Abkhazian separatists.
'If Russia starts actively helping Abkhazian extremists, it will have a new Afghanistan to face in Georgia,' Irakly Batiashbili, head of Georgia's intelligence information agency, said on Georgian television.
The breakup of the Soviet Union left Russia with an inheritance of troops stationed in various hot spots, including Georgia. Russian troops have been attacked so often in weapons raids by one side or another that they are under orders to strike back. Russian soldiers are often pressured to become involved in the conflict or leave the region entirely.
Russia's involvement in Georgia has included sending peacekeeping troops to Ossetia and conducting controversial humanitarian airlifts in Abkhazia.
Relations between Russia and Georgia, which decided against joining the Commonwealth of Independent States, have been cooled by recent events, even though Georgia has maintained economic ties with Russia and has remained in the Russian ruble zone. Shevardnadze, the Georgian president, was a political fixture in Moscow as Soviet foreign minister under President Mikhail Gorbachev.