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Georgia's Saakashvili Defends South Ossetia Assault

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili
TBILISI (Reuters) -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on November 28 defended his country's military assault on breakaway South Ossetia in August, saying Russian forces had invaded and Georgian citizens were in danger.

"Our answer to the question whether we have undertaken military action is 'Yes,' we took the decision to undertake military action," Saakashvili told a parliamentary commission investigating the war.

"It was a difficult decision, but it was an inevitable one. Any democratic government would take the same decision, to protect its citizens."

Saakashvili has come under fire from opponents who accuse him of walking into a war Georgia could not possibly win. Saakashvili insists Russia was the aggressor.

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 blames Saakashvili for unleashing the conflict. It responded with a powerful 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."

In October, Moscow pulled its troops back inside South Ossetia and Georgia's second breakaway region of Abkhazia, both of which it has recognised as independent states.

Saakashvili repeated that Tbilisi launched the full-scale assault on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on the evening of August 7, having learned that Russian tanks and troops were pouring across the border and fearing for the safety of Georgian villages.

"We learned that Russian troops were moving through the Roki tunnel and had crossed the Georgian state boundary," he said. "I could not believe they would cross that red line.... I could not believe they would be first to take this step."

"When we asked the Russians through the Americans what was the goal of their intervention, their answer was 'the complete destruction of Georgia.'"