LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (CNN) -- The White House issued a rare public criticism of Russia Saturday, saying there were "credible reports" it had violated Georgia's sovereignty and "indiscriminately bombed" villages, resulting in civilian deaths.
"The United States is deeply concerned about credible reports that Russian military aircraft indiscriminately bombed villages in northern Georgia on August 23, resulting in the killing of civilians ... The United States regrets this loss of life and deplores the violation of Georgia's sovereignty," the White House statement said.
Russia denied any responsibility for the bombing, saying its planes had not flown over the area on Friday.
"Russia's air force didn't cross the border, didn't fly over that region and didn't bomb anything," Russian air force spokesman Alexander Dobryshevsky told the Interfax news agency Friday.
The White House said Moscow's denial of any involvement in the bombing rang hollow because it said observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had witnessed the strikes.
The statement went on to say that Russia's denial belies past assurances from Moscow that it would honor Georgia's territorial borders and escalates tension between Russia and Georgia. The White House said the episode was a reminder of the urgent need for a political settlement to the conflict in Chechnya.
Secretary of State Colin Powell called Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to voice Washington's displeasure, the White House said.
Russia has accused Georgia of harboring Chechen rebels, who use the rugged Russia-Georgia border region to stage attacks.
Georgian State Security Ministry spokesman Nika Laliashvili told Reuters in Tbilisi that a 65-year-old man was killed in the bombing and seven people were injured.
The bombing was close to the Pankisi Gorge, an area of great interest to Washington because of suspicions that it is a refuge for militant Islamists.
U.S. Special Forces advisers have been training the Georgian army since May to take on Islamic militants.
U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was "shocked and dismayed" at the Russian bombing.
"Russia needs to stop such activity immediately and apologize to the Georgian government for violating its airspace and engaging in activities that undermine peace and stability in the Caucasus," he said in a statement.
On Friday Georgia President Eduard Shevardnadze told Interfax: "If it will continue this way, Georgia will have to use all means to stop such bombings.
"Russia should stop hunting for Georgian villages and if the Russian president [Vladimir Putin] cannot control his own military forces, this is his problem."
Remarks by US Ambassador at Large and Special Adviser for the NIS States S. Sestanovich on US Policy Toward Russia
Washington D.C., 16 July 1998
Our goal since the end of the Cold War has been a democratic, undivided Europe that includes Russia and all of the New Independent States. Our interests dictate that we work to draw Russia into more cooperative relationships with its immediate neighbors and with the world as a whole. Inclusion is a sounder policy than isolation, but it does not mean forgetting our interests or ignoring our differences. During a recent NATO-Russia meeting, Secretary Albright expressed this well when she said, "We are not here to pretend or to paper over differences. We are here to work through them."
Let me start with Russia and its neighbors. Some, perhaps most, of Russia's neighbors believe that Moscow is out to dominate them. (And some Russians accuse us of trying to supplant them in the region.) This Administration categorically rejects the idea of a Russian sphere of influence. The reality is that the region needs a cooperative, constructive Russia, whose dealings with its neighbors accord with international norms for relations among sovereign states.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the Caucasus. Our objective has been to provide firm support for the independence and territorial integrity of these and the other New Independent States. Our cooperation with Russia has made positive contributions to lowering tensions and building new, appropriate relationships among the NIS, but the picture is not uniform.
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