Georgian President says 'Russia fighting war'

Fri Aug 8, 2008 10:37am EDT

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(Updates with quotes and background)

WASHINGTON, Aug 8 (Reuters) - Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said on Friday that Russia was fighting a war with his country and that Georgians were "looking with hope" to America, but he did not specifically appeal for U.S. help.

"We have Russian tanks moving in. We have continuous Russian bombardment since yesterday ... specifically targeting the civilian population," Saakashvili said in an interview with CNN.

"Russia is fighting a war with us in our own territory."

Russian forces rolled into Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region and were approaching its capital, Tskhinvali, on Friday, Russia's RIA news agency quoted a Russian military commander as saying.

"This was a very blunt Russian aggression. ... We are right now suffering because we want to be free and we want to be a multiethnic democracy," Saakashvili said in the interview.

Saakashvili, whose country is pushing to join NATO, said the conflict "is not about Georgia anymore. It's about America, its values."

"I ... thought that America stands up for those freedom-loving nations and supports them. That's what America is all about. That's why we look with hope at every American," the U.S.-educated president said.

Neither the White House or the Pentagon had any immediate reaction to the situation. The U.S. Defense Department has less than 120 personnel in Georgia. They are involved in training Georgian forces.

Saakashvili said Russia had been preparing for the war for years, amassing troops on Georgia's border for months.

"They made no secret. The are unhappy with our closeness with the United States, with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with the West in general," he said.

The president said Russian artillery had been shelling Georgian positions for weeks, but he ordered a response only after Russian tanks moved in.

Saakashvili rejected Russian assertions that the fighting was sparked by events in South Ossetia, where Moscow accuses Georgian forces of aggressive action against Russian peacekeepers and others.

He compared the situation to the Soviet invasions of Afghanistan in 1979 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Georgia and Russia were both part of the Soviet Union until its breakup in 1991.

"We are in this situation of self-defense against a big and mighty neighbor. We are a country of less than 5 million people and certainly our forces are not comparable," the president said.

"It would be suicidal for us to provoke Russia."

Saakashvili said Georgian forces had shot down two Russian aircraft. "One of the aircraft was specifically attacking a civilian hospital wounding doctors and patients with no real purpose," he said.

Saakashvili said he witnessed a Russian air attack -- two jets flying low, looking for "a marketplace in a very busy afternoon, and hitting it, hitting the crowd of people."



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