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Page last updated at 20:29 GMT, Tuesday, 19 August 2008 21:29 UK

Ossetian crisis: Who started it?

By Jenny Norton
BBC News

Georgian artillery firing at South Ossetian separatists
Georgia was filmed firing rockets into South Ossetia on 8 August

The fighting may well be over in South Ossetia, but the war of words between Russia and Georgia shows no sign of dying down.

Both sides blame each other for starting the violence and, as the recriminations get louder, the truth about what really happened seems in danger of being drowned out.

The succession of international leaders who have visited Georgia over the past week to offer the country support in its continuing stand-off with Russia seem reluctant to be drawn into the debate about the causes of the conflict.

"This is not the time for… allocating blame," said a spokesman for the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited Tbilisi on Sunday.

But human rights groups and conflict resolution specialists argue that a full investigation into the circumstances and events of the fighting in South Ossetia are an urgent priority.

In a region where ancient feuds shape current events, half-truths from one conflict all too quickly become the myths that fuel the next cycle of violence.

So why did Russia and Georgia end up going to war?

'Volunteer fighters'

The immediate causes of the fighting centre on the events of 7 August. After days of heavy exchanges of fire with South Ossetian separatist fighters, and several fruitless attempts to arrange peace talks, the Georgian side had called a unilateral ceasefire.

Russian tanks in South Ossetia
Russia sent its troops into Georgia to 'support Russian peacekeepers'

"We do not want to return fire," said President Mikheil Saakashvili in an early evening address on national television. "Please do not test the Georgian state's patience… Let's give peace and dialogue a chance."

But five and a half hours later, Georgia's patience snapped.

The defence ministry in Tbilisi announced that it had sent troops into South Ossetia "to restore constitutional order in the entire region".

Fierce fighting erupted around the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, and Georgian war planes were reported to be in action bombing the town and surrounding areas.

The Georgians said they had been forced to retaliate after coming under continuing and sustained attack from the South Ossetian side.

Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze, speaking on the morning of 8 August, said there had also been reports of an incursion of "so-called volunteer fighters" from North Ossetia coming through the Roki tunnel, which links South Ossetia to Russia.

In a news conference six days later, the prime minister amplified this, referring to "a massive column of 150 units" crossing through the Roki tunnel during the night. It was this, he said, that had triggered the decision to send in the troops.

So far there have been no independent reports about this alleged incursion, although there were reports of Russian military exercises in the area around the Roki tunnel in the days leading up to the fighting. It is just one of many questions about this war which have yet to be answered.

Within hours Russia had launched its own "peace enforcement" operation in support, it said, of Russian peacekeepers and civilians in the region.

Georgian tanks burning
This summer's violence followed months of rising tensions

The first air strikes on the Georgian town of Gori were reported on the morning of 8 August, and over the following days convoys of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles were rolling through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia and on into other parts of Georgia.

Whether or not either side was deliberately planning to go to war or just over-reacting to circumstances, it is clear that both Russia and Georgia were prepared for a sudden escalation in the violence.

Both Georgia's assault on Tskhinvali, and Russia's response to it, were swift and brutal.

Neither side seems to have given much thought to the thousands of unfortunate civilians - both Georgians and South Ossetians - who found themselves caught up in the middle of the fighting.

Human rights groups have used the word "disproportionate" to describe the actions of both sides.

Rising tensions

Many key questions about Georgia and Russia's sudden, summer war remain unanswered.

It is still not clear how many civilians died in the bombardment of Tskhinvali or who exactly was responsible for torching dozens of Georgian homes in the conflict zone.

Nor is it clear exactly what has been going on in and around the Georgian town of Gori, where there have been reports of looting and violence by South Ossetian paramilitaries for days.

But what is clear is the failure of both diplomacy and common sense on all sides in the months leading up to fighting in South Ossetia.

This summer's violence followed months of well-documented rising tensions between Georgia and Russia.

Moscow was furious at the recognition of Kosovo in February and the promise from Nato in March that Georgia would one day become a member. The Russians hit back by upping their support for the two breakaway regions.

Russian paratroopers were sent to reinforce the peacekeepers in Abkhazia. A unit of Russian railway troops arrived to carry out repairs in the region. Throughout the spring and early summer the two sides played a seemingly endless game of provocation and retaliation.

Sporadic violence often breaks out in the summer time in Georgia's conflict zones. It is the result, local people say, of a combination of hot weather, frayed nerves and quite simply too many guns facing each other over fragile ceasefire lines.

It is a tragedy for the people of the Caucasus that this summer - despite international attempts at mediation and calls for calm - neither side seemed ready or willing to pull back from the brink.

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