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Foes Say Saakashvili Distorted War Report

Opposition leaders say President Mikheil Saakashvili has harmed Georgia's international standing.
TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia's opposition rounded on President Mikheil Saakashvili after a damning report on last year's war with Russia, and one former ally accused him of distorting its findings to deceive the Georgian people.

The Georgian government and the country's main television broadcasters said the independent report, commissioned by the European Union and released on September 30, pinned the blame for the five-day war on Russia.

Opposition leader and former Saakashvili ally Nino Burjanadze said the government was concealing the report's key finding -- that Georgia began full-scale hostilities with an unjustifiable assault on the pro-Russian breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The report said the assault was the culmination of a long period of increasing tensions, provocations and incidents, and added that Russia's military response went beyond reasonable limits and violated international law.

But it said the five-day conflict began with Saakashvili's order to unleash heavy artillery on South Ossetia on August 7, which was followed by a devastating Russian counter-strike.

"Again, the Georgian authorities have tried through their controlled media to hide the truth from their people," Burjanadze told a news briefing in the capital, Tbilisi. "The hiding and mutilation of the facts in the report is also a crime."

Saakashvili himself has so far been silent on the report. He survived months of opposition protests earlier this year against his record on democracy and last year's war.

Analysts forecast renewed pressure after the report's publication, but say another leadership challenge from a weak opposition appears unlikely.

Another defector from Saakashvili's camp, former UN ambassador Irakly Alasania, said in an interview with Reuters that the 41-year-old president had damaged Georgia's international standing with his "irresponsible" actions.

"It was his decision that really triggered full escalation," he said, speaking in English. "But there were the whole set of preconditions and provocations that we can also blame the Russian Federation for."

The opposition has been careful to balance criticism of Saakashvili's conduct with contempt for Russia's military action, for fear of being labeled traitors by the authorities.

The Georgian government insists the war was the result of Russian aggression after years of intensifying Russian political and military support for separatists in South Ossetia and Georgia's other rebel region, Abkhazia.