MOSCOW (AFP) — Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday likened the Georgian military assault on South Ossetia that led to last month's war to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
"Almost immediately after these events it occurred to me that for Russia, August 8, 2008 was almost like September 11, 2001 in the United States," Medvedev told Western foreign policy experts in Moscow.
Russia responded on that date and routed the US-trained Georgian army in a conflict estimated to have killed hundreds of people on both sides and left tens of thousands more displaced in temporary camps.
In Tbilisi, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili faced his most significant political challenge since the war as a former ally openly questioned his leadership and said she would set up her own party.
Exactly one month after an EU-brokered truce ended the conflict, Georgian officials said there was little sign on the ground that Russia had started pulling an estimated 1,470 troops from the main part of Georgia.
There were no signs of Russian troops moving from some of their bases near the oil terminal of Poti, the Georgian airbase at Senaki and the Inguri hydroelectric dam, which produces nearly half of Georgia's power supply.
"It's a dead zone here. The children are afraid. They stay at home because sometimes there's shooting at night," said a Georgian refugee in the village of Chale.
At other bases in western Georgia, soldiers appeared to be packing up to leave but Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili cast doubt on the preparations, saying: "There has been no sign of a withdrawal.
"They are making preparations, we can see that, but in terms of reducing the number of personnel, it's still the same as it was. Since last week they have been saying they are going to leave in a couple of days."
Saakashvili, meanwhile, was warned he would face "tough questions" over his handling of the crisis with Russia.
Nino Burjanadze, a two-time interim president and former speaker of parliament, called for an independent investigation into the events leading up to Georgia's five-day war with Russia.
"There is a time for tough questions. Of course what happened was a Russian provocation, but we need to know whether it was possible to not yield to this provocation," she said at a news conference.
Saakashvili says he was provoked into the assault by repeated separatist attacks on Georgian-controlled villages and that Russian forces had already entered South Ossetia through the Roki Tunnel that connects it to Russian North Ossetia.
Georgia accuses Russia of effectively annexing South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia, but Moscow says it was defending many Ossetians who had been granted Russian citizenship since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.
After weeks of silence during and immediately after the conflict, Georgia's vocal opposition has begun raising doubts about Saakashvili's handling of the crisis.
Burjanadze, a former ally of Saakashvili, also said she was planning to form a political party to challenge the government.
Divided and lacking a charismatic leader, Georgia's opposition has hardly been able to lay a glove on Saakashvili since he swept to power after the peaceful protests of the Rose Revolution in 2003.
Analysts say Burjanadze, once a Saakashvili loyalist, is one of the few Georgian politicians with the clout and experience to mount a serious challenge.
In Moscow, Medvedev further ratcheted up the war of words with the West, saying Russia would have responded in exactly the same way had Georgia been granted official NATO applicant status.
"I would not have hesitated for a second to take the same decision," Medvedev told the media forum, according to participants.
NATO leaders said in April that Georgia would join at a future date, along with fellow ex-Soviet nation Ukraine. The stance has deeply angered Russia, fearful that its old Cold War foe is closing in on its borders.
"There were many useful lessons from 9/11 in the United States. I would like the world to draw its own lessons from what happened" in August, Medvedev said, adding: "The world changed."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ruled out any discussion of Moscow's recognition of independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- or on their status -- at international talks set for October 15 in Geneva.
He also announced he planned to visit Abkhazia on Sunday and South Ossetia on Monday.
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