Saakashvili Defends 'Difficult Choice'

ReutersA reporter taking notes Sunday as Saakashvili testifies to a Georgian parliamentary commission on the conflict.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Friday mounted a fresh defense of his country's assault on South Ossetia in August, denying accusations that Tbilisi had been the aggressor in the disastrous war with Russia that ensued.

Under fire from opponents who say he started a war that Georgia could not win, Saakashvili defended his actions on the night of Aug. 7 during televised testimony before a bipartisan parliamentary commission probing the war.

Saakashvili remains popular among voters, but Georgia's fractious opposition is using the five-day conflict to mount a fresh challenge to the pro-Western president, who came to power with the 2003 "Rose Revolution."

Saakashvili's defense was aimed primarily at a domestic audience. Western states did condemn Russia's intervention but have not disguised their dissatisfaction with Georgia's assault on the rebel region. NATO looks certain to again deny Tbilisi a road map to membership when alliance foreign ministers meet Dec. 2-3.

Saakashvili dismissed as "utter nonsense" testimony this week by Georgia's ex-ambassador to Russia, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, who said Tbilisi had been the aggressor, having mistakenly convinced itself that it had the blessing of the United States.

Defense Minister David Kezerashvili told the commission on Thursday that Georgia attacked the rebel capital Tskhinvali on Aug. 7-8 because Russian forces were pouring across the border, and it was a matter of time before they attacked Georgian-populated villages.

But at the time, there was no public statement from the Georgian leadership that Russian forces were invading. The shelling of Tskhinvali after a cease-fire of several hours and the subsequent ground assault was justified as a response to rebel shelling of Georgian villages.

Saakashvili repeated the later claim that Russia had already invaded and forced his hand, recalling "the most difficult choice of my life." Russia says the claim is nonsense and that it intervened to defend South Ossetian civilians.

"It's the responsibility of any democratically elected leader to defend his country, borders and peaceful population," he said.

In Georgian and separatist South Ossetian authorities are accusing each other of opening fire across the line of control in the ex-Soviet republic.

Nobody was hurt, but the the South Ossetian government said Sunday that a village came under automatic-weapons fire from Georgian-controlled territory for several hours late Saturday. It said South Ossetian forces did not return fire.

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili acknowledged that Georgian forces fired shots but said they were responding to gunfire from South Ossetian-controlled territory.

Reuters, AP