Ex-Ambassador Blaming Georgia

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian authorities mistook messages from the U.S. administration as encouragement to use force against Georgia's breakaway provinces -- an action that triggered the August war with Russia, a former Georgian diplomat said Wednesday.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, who was ambassador to Moscow in the months before the August war, said the Georgian government's actions were to blame for the conflict.

Kitsmarishvili's allegations stirred the debate over what or who started the five-day war -- a debate Georgia said should be resolved by an international investigation.

The war put a strain on U.S.-Russian relations, and U.S. officials have denied Russian allegations that Washington encouraged Georgia to launch an attack on the South Ossetia region.

Georgian leaders have said they launched the Aug. 7 attack after separatists shelled Georgian villages and Russian forces invaded from the north. Russia denies that, saying it sent troops to protect civilians and Russian peacekeepers from the Georgian onslaught.

Kitsmarishvili's comments Wednesday appeared to support the Russian arguments.

He said Georgian officials believed that the United States backed the idea of Georgian troops moving to reclaim Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, which have been de facto independent and patrolled by Russian peacekeepers since the early 1990s.

He said Georgian officials told him that President George W. Bush gave his blessing for such a use of force when he met Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili in Washington in March.

"Saakashvili's entourage has tried to form an opinion that the U.S. administration would support the use of force," Kitsmarishvili told a news conference. "In reality, it was not like that."

Georgian officials also perceived a July 9-10 visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as encouragement for their plan to retake Abkhazia, the former diplomat told Ekho Moskvy radio separately.

Rice has denied that Washington encouraged Georgia to use force on the provinces.

Kitsmarishvili said U.S. officials he contacted also denied that Washington had given backing to Georgian military action.

Kitsmarishvili made similar allegations to a Georgian parliamentary panel Tuesday, angering progovernment lawmakers, who accused him of siding with Moscow.

Georgia recalled Kitsmarishvili for consultations just before the war, and the countries have since severed diplomatic ties.