Georgian leader denounces Russian troops as ‘invaders’
Saakashvili marks first anniversary since war started
TBILISI, Georgia - President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia defiantly marked the first anniversary of his country’s war with Russia yesterday, denouncing Russian troops who control two Georgian regions as “invaders.’’
In a heated speech to a rain-drenched crowd of thousands in Gori, Saakashvili vowed Georgia’s neighbor would never regain control of his small country, his voice sometimes a growl and sometimes rising to a near shout. It was a marked contrast to the day’s otherwise quiet and low-key war commemorations.
“Our future will not be written in a hostile, far-away, frigid capital,’’ Saakashvili said, referring to his frequent contention that Moscow aims to control or occupy all of Georgia, which it ruled for decades during the Soviet period.
“We want to defeat the invaders, not by another war. Obviously not. We want to defeat them by peacefully strengthening our democratic institutions, by constantly developing our economy, by getting closer and closer to the European Union,’’ he said in the city heavily damaged by the war. Saakashvili’s push for western integration deeply angers Moscow.
The brief war killed at least 390 people and left a legacy of animosity between leaders and fears of more fighting. About 26,000 people displaced by the conflict still live in temporary housing in Georgia, many on less than $3 a day, according to aid group World Vision.
For five days Georgian troops fought to rein in the breakaway region of South Ossetia and push back advancing Russian forces. Russian troops and tanks backed the separatist forces against what they called an unprovoked Georgian assault.
Fighting ended with an EU-brokered agreement that left South Ossetia cut off from the rest of Georgia by military checkpoints. Russia, which recognizes South Ossetia as independent, maintains thousands of troops there to support local forces, which have widely been accused of killing ethnic Georgian civilians, burning their houses and driving them at gunpoint from the region.
“We feel there is a great danger in the current situation,’’ Tbilisi resident Lia Tabukashvili said while visiting a memorial to war victims on Parliament’s steps. “We can only place our faith in God and the international community.’’
Georgian soldiers watch the tense boundary line from a few hundred yards away, and European Union monitors use binoculars to survey the South Ossetian side, which Russia refuses to allow them to enter.
Both sides have said the other fired mortars or shot at them in recent weeks. Yesterday, Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said five civilians in the border village of Koshki were kidnapped by armed men who crossed over from South Ossetia. Russian news agencies cited South Ossetia leader Eduard Kokoity as saying the men had inadvertently crossed into the province and were to be released immediately.
President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia defended his decision to go to war last year.