TBILISI, Georgia – Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili defiantly marked the first anniversary of his country's war with Russia on Friday, denouncing Russian troops who control two Georgian regions as "invaders."
In a heated speech to a rain-drenched crowd of thousands in Gori, Saakashvili vowed Georgia's neighbor would never again regain control of his small country, his voice sometimes a growl and sometimes rising to a near shout. It was a marked contrast to the day's otherwise quiet and low-key war commemorations.
"Our future will not be written in a hostile, far away, frigid capital," Saakashvili said, referring to his frequent contention that Moscow aims to control or occupy all of Georgia, which it ruled for decades during the Soviet period.
"We want to defeat the invaders, not by another war. Obviously not. We want to defeat them by peacefully strengthening our democratic institutions, by constantly developing our economy, by getting closer and closer to the European Union," he said in the city heavily damaged by the war. Saakashvili's push for westren integration deeply angers Moscow.
The brief war killed at least 390 people and left a legacy of animosity between leaders and fears of more fighting. About 26,000 people displaced by the conflict still live in temporary housing in Georgia, many on less than $3 a day, according to aid group World Vision.
For five days Georgian troops fought to rein in the breakaway region of South Ossetia and push back advancing Russian forces. Russian troops and tanks backed the separatist forces against what they called an unprovoked Georgian assault.
Fighting ended with an EU-brokered agreement that left South Ossetia cut off from the rest of Georgia by military checkpoints. Russia, which recognizes South Ossetia as independent, maintains thousands of troops there to support local forces, which have widely been accused of killing ethnic Georgian civilians, burning their houses and driving them at gunpoint from the region.
"We feel there is a great danger in the current situation," Tbilisi resident Lia Tabukashvili said while visiting a memorial to war victims on parliament's steps. "We can only place our faith in God and the international community."
Georgian soldiers watch the tense boundary line from a few hundred meters (yards) away, and European Union monitors use binoculars to survey the South Ossetian side, which Russia refuses to allow them to enter.
Both sides have claimed the other fired mortars or shot at them in recent weeks. On Friday, Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said five civilians in the border village of Koshki were kidnapped by armed men who crossed over from South Ossetia. Russian news agencies cited South Ossetia leader Eduard Kokoity as saying the men had inadvertently crossed into the province and were to be released immediately.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev defended his decision to go to war last year. "Each time I remember these events, I scroll the tape backward, as they say, and realize that on the one hand, we had no other choice," he said in a statement released by the Kremlin.
Tbilisi closed its main avenue, Rustaveli Prospekt, for a photo exhibition chronicling Moscow's Soviet-era control, or occupation, of Georgia. The country observed a minute of silence and church bells tolled.
In the hard-hit city of Gori, about 50 miles west of Tbilisi, several hundred people formed a human flag display at the ruins of a medieval fortress. Residents later held hands in a human chain through the city of 50,000, which was bombed when the war spread into Georgia proper from South Ossetia.
Earlier in Tbilisi the president attended a wreath-laying ceremony, where a 2-year-old boy in a tiny military uniform stood by the grave of his father Emzar Tsilosani, who was killed in the war.
"He will be a soldier, like his father," said widow and mother Teona Tsilosani. "But Emzar is not coming back — that's what Russia brought upon us with this war they created."
Both Russia and South Ossetia contend the war began with a Georgian artillery assault on Tskhinvali, and that Moscow sent troops to protect peacekeeping forces and civilians. They claim Saakashvili retains ambitions to seize South Ossetia by force.
Georgia says it launched the barrage to repel Russian tanks and troops that had begun an invasion before dawn. Saakashvili says Russia wants to drive him from power because Moscow resents his efforts to bring Georgia into NATO and the EU.
South Ossetia leader Kokoity on Friday claimed Georgian forces had massacred civilians on a road as they fled the Tskhinvali attack.
"The refusal of Georgia or its Western supporters to even acknowledge this massacre is proof of the moral failure by the leaders responsible for last year's war," he said in a statement. Kokoity asked, "Why do U.S. and European leaders continue to support such men?"
A Russian Orthodox priest and Cossacks from Moldova's separatist province of Trans-Dniester erected a cross near heavily shelled Russian peacekeepers' barracks on the outskirts Tskhinvali.
"This place is drenched in the blood of our soldiers who stood up against the Georgian aggression," Father Andrei Zizo said.