MOSCOW — The president of Georgia accused Russia of bombing his nation Friday and killing one person, in an escalation of long-running tensions between the neighbors.
Russian military officials shrugged off the protest by President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, denying the incident and claiming that the Georgians probably dropped the bombs themselves--although Russian helicopters and planes have bombarded the country in the past.
Georgian officials said the airstrike early Friday also wounded five people. Georgian border guards reported that seven Russian planes took part in the attack, and a shepherd told Russia's NTV television that he saw eight planes flying from the direction of the Russian border.
The bombing occurred in the Ilto Gorge, near the town of Akhmeta and nine miles west of the Pankisi Gorge. In November, Georgian officials said Russian planes had dropped bombs in Georgia.
Relations between Russia and Georgia have been poor since the countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the presence of Chechen rebels in and near the Pankisi Gorge in the mountainous region of northeastern Georgia is the harshest irritant. The guerrillas are seeking independence for the nearby Russian republic of Chechnya.
Friday's conflict underscores the frustrations on both sides: Georgia's impotence in the face of its powerful northern neighbor and Russia's inability to stop the rebels from using Georgia as a haven and a base for launching attacks.
The United States is also concerned about the lawless Pankisi area, amid reports last spring that some Arab mercenaries were hiding there. U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers, or Green Berets, are in Georgia training an anti-terrorist force to bring the gorge under control.
The first test will probably come Sunday, when the Georgian forces are scheduled to hold an operation in and around Pankisi--the first sign of the nation's willingness to tackle a problem that has angered Russia for two years.
Friday's bombing came a day after Georgia's Rustavi 2 television network aired a report that dozens or hundreds of Chechen fighters had taken shelter in an area near the Pankisi Gorge.
The station showed footage of an abandoned campsite, a military badge bearing the Chechen rebel colors and a fragment of a military map of Georgia.
"The bombing took place in the area of the deserted campsite we were showing yesterday in our program," Akaki Gogichaishvili, a senior producer at Rustavi 2, said in a telephone interview with The Times. "What I don't understand is why they choose to bomb a place that rebels had left a couple of days earlier, which was made clear in our program."
Tamaz Kaadze, chief doctor of the Akhmeta district hospital, said six bombing victims were brought to the hospital early Friday. One was dead and five were wounded, two critically, he said.
"They are all local farmers who went to the woods in two trucks to collect firewood when the bombing began," he said by telephone. "All of them suffered heavy concussion caused by the blast wave. Some of them have burns too."
However, Russian air force spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky insisted the weather was unsuitable for flying Friday morning.
"We know nothing about it," he said. "But we are absolutely sure that our planes didn't make any flights in that area this morning and didn't bomb anyone."
Shevardnadze underscored a belief common in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, that Russian military elements hostile to his nation sporadically attack, sometimes without the authority of their superiors.
"I ask all in Russia, and first of all President [Vladimir V.] Putin, to stop this arbitrariness, to stop targeting Georgian villages," Shevardnadze said, addressing a military regiment in Tbilisi. "It is a different matter if the military doesn't obey Putin. In this case, he must restore law and order."
Shevardnadze called on Chechen men to leave Georgian territory.
"I hope this is the last accident and that it won't happen again," he said. "We don't want revenge. We don't want to fight against Russia. But if it goes on, we will look for ways to defend ourselves."
In reality, tiny Georgia--about the size of West Virginia--has no military answer to its vast and powerful neighbor. Meanwhile, Russia is unable to wipe out Chechen rebels in Georgia without Shevardnadze's go-ahead, which he steadfastly refuses to give. Russia would face severe Western condemnation if it mounted a unilateral military operation in the Pankisi Gorge.
Georgia has cultivated ties with the U.S., Europe and Turkey to counter the pressure it feels from Russia.
Sergei Loiko in The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.