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World News

INTERVIEW - Saakashvili says Russia still wants him out

TBILISI (Reuters) - President Mikheil Saakashvili said Georgia knows it cannot take back its Russian-backed rebel regions militarily but fears Moscow has designs on Tbilisi.

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili speaks to media after his meeting with opposition leaders in Tbilisi May 11, 2009. REUTERS/Pool/Irakli Gedenidze/Files

In an interview with Reuters a year after a war with Russia, Saakashvili said the world had failed to hold Moscow to account for “mass ethnic cleansing” of Georgians in the South Ossetia conflict for fear of jeopardising energy and trade interests.

That he is still in office is “almost a miraculous story of survival”, Saakashvili said, adding that though a new war is not imminent, Russia has not given up hope of ousting him with forces 50 km (30 miles) from the Georgian capital.

“I am still sitting in this office despite solemn pledges by (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin to hang me by different parts of my body, to crush Georgia’s statehood,” Saakashvili said.

“... in many ways it’s mission unaccomplished. That’s certainly very worrisome.”

Russia crushed a Georgian assault on South Ossetia last August, sending tanks into Georgia proper and shaking Western confidence in oil and gas routes running through the South Caucasus.

A spike in tensions ahead of the anniversary is fuelling fears of new hostilities.

Russia warned on Saturday it would use “all available force” to defend against Georgian “provocation” after South Ossetia accused Georgia of firing mortars. Georgia denied the charge.

Saakashvili said former Soviet Georgia had no pretensions to take back South Ossetia and Abkhazia by force, responding to a comment by visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last month in which he said there was “no military option to reintegration”.

DISPLACED

“The issue is whether anybody in the world wants new war in Europe with the participation of Russia, and the obvious answer is ‘No’, and that’s exactly what Vice President Biden was implying, and which we share,” Saakashvili said.

The West condemned Russia response last year as “disproportionate”, but also faulted Saakashvili’s assault on South Ossetia, which, like the Black Sea region of Abkhazia, threw off Georgian rule in wars in the early 1990s.

Russia says it was compelled to act to save civilians and its peacekeepers. It says Saakashvili is dangerous, but analysts doubt Moscow has any intention of going to war to oust him.

Despite a ceasefire by which both sides agreed to withdraw forces to pre-war positions, Russia has thousands of troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and has recognised both as independent states.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced on both sides. Rights groups said Georgian shelling of Tskhinvali during the war was indiscriminate, and Russian forces had failed to stop militias from looting and razing Georgian villages.

Some 25,000 Georgians remain displaced.

“In many ways ... the world has neglected the mass scale ethnic cleansing that has been done here,” Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili has survived months of protests by opponents who accuse him of monopolising power since becoming president on the back of the 2003 “Rose Revolution”. The president defended his record, but conceded “sometimes we could have done it better”.

“This country has done for the last several years amazing things ... It has proven that modern statehood with real developed institutions can exist in this region,” he said.

“The Soviet Union is being destroyed right now in Georgia, and I think we are dealing with the last traces of it even if we have what are the heirs to Soviet troops in our territory.”

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