MOSCOW Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared wryly to confirm on Thursday French media reports that he had said Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili deserved to be hung by his testicles for his role in the August war with Russia.
French media had quoted Putin as saying in a heated conversation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Moscow on August 12 that Saakashvili should be "hung by his balls" for starting the war which was roundly condemned by the West.
In a distraction from queries about the economic crisis during a lengthy televised question and answer session with the Russian public, Putin was asked: "Is this true you promised to hang Saakashvili by one part?"
Smiling thinly at the question, posed over a crackling phone line by a man in the Russian city of Penza, Putin, who has in the past used coarse language to hammer home a point, waited for the laughter of his studio audience to subside before replying:
"But why only by one part?"
Up until now, Russian officials had described the talks with the French president as a "tough dialogue" but did not deny that Putin had made such a comment.
Putin then frowned and blamed Saakashvili for triggering the brief war and compared his attack on the breakaway region of South Ossetia with the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"Seriously speaking, both me and you know about tragic events in another region of the world, in Iraq, invaded by American troops due to a concocted pretext of searching for weapons of mass destruction," said Putin.
"They found no weapons, but hanged the head of state, albeit on other charges ... " said Putin, referring to the 2006 execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"I believe it is up to Georgia's people to decide what kind of responsibility must be borne by those politicians who led to these harshest and tragic consequences," he said.
Months of skirmishes between separatists and Georgian troops erupted into war in August when Georgia sent troops and tanks to retake the pro-Russian rebel region of South Ossetia, which threw off Tbilisi's rule in 1991-92.
Russia responded with a counter-strike that drove the Georgian army out of South Ossetia. Moscow's troops then pushed further into Georgia, saying they needed to prevent further Georgian attacks. The West condemned Russia for a "disproportionate response" to Georgia's actions.
Russia said Georgia's attack on civilians and Russian peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia left it with no other option. Georgia accused Moscow of launching a premeditated and unprovoked invasion of its territory.
(Writing by Conor Sweeney; Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Conor Sweeney)