Georgia — Georgia accused Russia on Sunday of deliberately starting a fire which threatens to destroy a forest regarded by Georgians as a national treasure.
Russia’s Defence Ministry denied any involvement.
Georgia’s Interior Ministry said Russian helicopter gunships swooped over a region near the Borjomi-Kharagauli national park in central Georgia on Friday and dropped bombs that set fire to the densely forested hills.
“We’re sure that the Russians started the fires in our woods,” ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.
Georgian Environment Minister Irakly Gvaladze also blamed Russian helicopters for starting the fires.
“Local people say that the fires were started by Russian helicopters. They flew over the forests and then the fires started,” he said. “Now the Russians are not allowing aviation teams from Ukraine and Turkey to help put out the fires.”
Russian jets have bombed military bases, ports and radar installations in Georgia over the last nine days since the Kremlin launched a counter-attack against Georgia’s invasion of the Russian-backed Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Russia’s Defence Ministry on Sunday denied bombing the forests. “We had nothing to do with it,” a spokesman said.
Nugzar Zazanashvili, head of the Caucasus conservation programme at environmental group WWF, said Georgia’s emergency services were struggling to control the fires, which have already destroyed 500 hectares of forest.
“This will be a disaster,” he said. “This is the biggest coniferous forest in the Caucasus and is home to chamois, bears and the Caucasus red deer.”
Ancient villages and churches also dot the area, a favourite retreat for Georgian tourists.
The ferocity of the Russian counter-attack has shocked Georgia and its Western allies.
Russian soldiers captured the town of Gori, about 30 km (20 miles) from the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, on Tuesday after Georgia’s retreating army abandoned it. On Saturday, Russian soldiers also blew up a railway bridge, according to local residents.
But news of the forest fires about 200 km (120 miles) west of the Georgian capital still shocked people in Tbilisi.
Gia Bibineshvili sat in a leafy square sheltering from the hot afternoon sun. He sucked in his breath. “It’s unimaginable,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s unjustifiable, even in war.”
A tearful woman said her mother and brother lived in the area in which the fires were raging.
Another woman stopped as she carried home a bag full of shopping.
“It’s barbaric,” 53-year-old Rusudan said. “Ecologically this is a very important place for the world.”