Saakashvili "planned S. Ossetia invasion": ex-minister

PARIS Sun Sep 14, 2008 4:54pm EDT

South Ossetian residents walk through the debris of their destroyed house in Tskhinvali, August 30, 2008. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

South Ossetian residents walk through the debris of their destroyed house in Tskhinvali, August 30, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

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PARIS (Reuters) - Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had long planned a military strike to seize back the breakaway region of South Ossetia but executed it poorly, making it easy for Russia to retaliate, Saakashvili's former defence minister said.

Irakly Okruashvili, Georgia's leading political exile, said in a weekend interview in Paris that the United States was partly to blame for the war, having failed to check the ambitions of what he called a man with democratic failings.

Saakashvili's days as president were now numbered, he said.

The former defence minister's remarks are significant because Saakashvili has always maintained Russia started the war by invading his country. The Georgian president said he handed EU leaders last week "very strong proof" that Moscow was to blame, though he did not give details.

But Okruashvili, a close Saakashvili ally who served as defence minister from 2004 to 2006, said he and the president worked together on military plans to invade South Ossetia and a second breakaway region on the Black Sea coast, Abkhazia.

"Abkhazia was our strategic priority, but we drew up military plans in 2005 for taking both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well," Okruashvili said.

There was no immediate reaction from Saakashvili's officials to his remarks.

While in office, Okruashvili was an outspoken hawk, overseeing a military buildup and calling for Georgia to take back South Ossetia -- his birthplace -- by force.

But in the interview he fiercely criticized Saakashvili's handling of the war, which he said was launched in haste, without diplomatic support and failed to take account of a build-up of Russian forces in the region.

TWO-PRONGED OPERATION

"The original plans called for a two-pronged operation entering South Ossetia, taking Tskhinvali, the Roki Tunnel and Java," he said, referring respectively to the regional capital, the main border crossing between Russia and the rebel region, and another key town.

"Saakashvili's offensive only aimed at taking Tskhinvali, because he thought the U.S. would block a Russian reaction through diplomatic channels."

"But when the U.S. reaction turned out to be non-existent, Saakashvili then moved troops toward the Roki tunnel, only to be outmaneuvered by the Russians," he said.

Russia responded to the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali by pouring troops and tanks through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia, routing the Georgian army. Okruashvili said that outcome was inevitable.

"After 2006 we didn't have the possibility for success by military means... the Russians had repositioned and improved their military infrastructure in the North Caucasus, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia -- and obviously they did it for us."

Okruashvili said the Georgian president could have ordered his army to defend several key towns from the Russians but "let the Russians in to avoid criticism and appear more of a victim".

Washington had always made clear to the Georgian leadership that it would not support an invasion, Okruashvili added.

"When we met President Bush in May 2005, we were told directly: don't involve yourself in a military confrontation. We won't be able to help you militarily."

Okruashvili, 34, fled to Europe in 2007 after imprisonment in Georgia, where he faced corruption charges he denied, saying they were intended to punish him for criticizing the president.

In March, a Georgian court sentenced him to 11 years in prison in absentia, but he was granted asylum in France where last week a court rejected Tbilisi's extradition request.

Okruashvili said Washington was partly to blame for the war because it uncritically supported Saakashvili despite his growing authoritarianism.

"There were no checks and balances. The institutions he created all revolved around him. Lack of criticism from the U.S. allowed him to go too far," he said.

Okruashvili said the Georgian president should now resign or face possible prosecution for ordering the war and for signing a "disgraceful" EU-brokered ceasefire plan which he said gave Russia a much stronger claim on the two rebel regions.

"(Saakashvili) must be held accountable and resign. If he steps down, he shouldn't be prosecuted. But if he doesn't it will lead to criminal charges against him," Okruashvili said.

Propelled to the forefront of the opposition when the charges brought against him helped spark mass demonstrations in Tbilisi, Okruashvili said he hoped the coming anniversary of those protests would rally the president's critics.

"November 7th will be a test. We'll see how much the opposition is able to mobilize," he said.

In the French capital since January, Okruashvili plans to come back to his homeland soon.

"I will return within a year, even if it means risking jail. But in the meantime I will try to create the right conditions. Saakashvili's days are numbered."

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