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World News

Georgia inquiry criticizes military, but not war

TBILISI (Reuters) - A Georgian parliamentary inquiry has said the military conduct of its August conflict with Russia was flawed but backed President Mikheil Saakashvili’s attack on the breakaway South Ossetia region.

Georgian artillerists rest after firing during a military exercise near the village of Orfolo, some 200 km (124 miles) west of Tbilisi, December 18, 2008. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

The report echoed domestic criticism of the military performance in the five-day war in which the Russian army drove Georgian security forces from pro-Moscow South Ossetia and advanced to within 45 km (30 miles) of the capital Tbilisi.

But the findings, published on Thursday, supported Saakashvili’s decision to launch an air and ground assault on the rebel capital Tskhinvali on Aug 7 after months of skirmishes and Georgian accusations of Russian provocation.

Saakashvili has come under fire from Georgia’s fractious opposition, which accuses him of walking into a war the former Soviet state could not possibly win.

His young, Western-backed government has since said it was responding to a Russian invasion, a claim Moscow dismissed as absurd. Russia said it intervened to protect civilians, and recognized South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states.

“A mass military invasion and the fact of artillery bombing indicate that Russia, together with separatist military units, started operations on Georgian territory, to which Georgia responded with a defensive war,” the report said.

Diplomats say Georgia was clearly baited by Russia but that Saakashvili’s Aug 7 assault was bewildering and Tbilisi’s standing with its Western allies has been severely tested.

“The Georgian leadership managed to halt the Russian military aggression during the August events,” the parliamentary commission said. But, “serious systematic and personnel failures took place.”

Western governments criticized Russia’s response as “disproportionate” but a freeze on European Union and NATO ties with energy power Russia was reversed months later.

A NATO official said high-level talks with Russia would resume on Friday with lunch between alliance Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Russian envoy Dmitry Rogozin.

LACK OF STRATEGY, COORDINATION

The Georgian parliamentary report said civilian and military leaders failed to foresee and prepare for Russian intervention. Operations lacked strategy and coordination, and there were problems in military communication.

“As a result, there were serious failures in managing military operations,” the bipartisan commission said. The system of reserve forces was “inadequate and even counter-productive.” Georgia’s military chief of staff was dismissed after the war and the defense minister replaced this month.

At talks in Geneva on Thursday, mediators said Georgian and South Ossetian officials had agreed to work to prevent or resolve security incidents around their de facto border, where a fragile, EU-brokered ceasefire is frequently tested by accusations of shooting from both sides.

The war strained already difficult relations between the West and Russia in a region where they compete for influence over oil and gas supplies from Central Asia to Western markets.

Georgia’s former ambassador to Russia, vilified in November when he told the commission he believed Tbilisi had been the aggressor, said he struggled to take the findings seriously.

“The conclusions were known from the very beginning, and say nothing about the fault of the Georgian leadership, which together with Russia led us to the catastrophe we are now in,” Erosi Kitsmarishvili told Georgian Imedi television.

Tens of thousands of Georgian refugees remain homeless, on top of hundreds of thousands who fled wars in the early 1990s when South Ossetia and Abkhazia threw off Tbilisi’s rule.

The commission’s report coincided with the publication by the New York Times of a confidential Pentagon assessment of the Georgian military, which identified a severe lack of coordination and a tendency to appoint senior military leaders based on personal relationships rather than qualifications.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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