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Page last updated at 12:38 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

What really happened in South Ossetia?

Tim Whewell
by Tim Whewell

Tim Whewell's original report from South Ossetia which sparked controversy.

Three months after its short but bloody war with Russia, Georgia is facing increasingly difficult questions about its role in the conflict.

Russian tank next to a house set on fire by South Ossetian militia on August 18
Russian tank and a house burned by South Ossetian militia in August
Its attack on August 7 on the break-away region of South Ossetia triggered a Russian invasion, which in turn sparked the biggest crisis in east-west relations since the Cold War.

The United States, Britain and other Western governments offered Georgia strong diplomatic support, accusing Russia - South Ossetia's ally - of aggression and massive over-reaction.

But now mounting evidence is casting doubt on Georgia's account of the origins and course of the war. It suggests that Georgia played a bigger role than it admits in provoking the conflict, and that it may have violated the rules of war in the first days of the fighting.

The latest evidence comes from the international community's chief observer in Georgia at the time, former British army officer Ryan Grist.

Conflict zones

When war broke out, he was acting head of mission for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, which acts on behalf of its 56 member governments in Europe, North America and Central Asia as an early warning system for upcoming trouble in conflict zones.

Tskhinvali: Photo by Alan Tskhurbayev - Institute of War and Peace Reporting

The OSCE's briefings to member governments are confidential. But Mr Grist, who's now resigned from the organisation, told Newsnight in an exclusive TV interview what he and his fellow monitors reported before and during the war.

On the night of August 7-8 he was in constant contact with the three OSCE military monitors based in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, when Georgia launched its artillery strikes on the town of about 30,000 people.

"It was an indiscriminate attack on a civilian town," he told Newsnight.

"The monitors who remained there that night reported 40 to 50 shells landed close to their office and that is nowhere near any target - though it is near the base of the Russian peacekeepers."

'Indiscriminate force'

Ten members of the Russian peacekeeping battalion in South Ossetia were reported killed in the attack - one of the justifications the Kremlin used for ordering its troops into the territory on August 8th.

Georgia insists Ossetian militia had attacked Georgian villages from sites at or near the peacekeepers' base.

But Mr Grist's account backs up eye-witness testimony gathered by the BBC in Tskhinvali, which suggests most damage was to ordinary homes and civilian infrastructure.

During our visit, the first unrestricted access granted to a Western news organisation since the war, I heard accounts, and saw evidence, of how Georgian 'Grad' rockets - which cannot be accurately targeted - fell on residential quarters of the town.

The Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria responds to criticism.

In at least one case Georgian tanks were said to have fired directly and repeatedly into an occupied apartment block, killing one civilian sheltering in the basement, and fatally wounding another.

The international investigative organisation Human Rights Watch, which has carried out its own research in Tskhinvali, also believes Georgia used "indiscriminate force" against civilian buildings - a violation of the Geneva Conventions governing the conduct of war.

Cluster munitions

Human Rights Watch now says it also has evidence that Georgia - as well as Russia - made extensive use of cluster munitions during the war. It says that caused civilian casualties, including some in Georgian villages.

Georgia denies it ever deliberately targeted civilian objects during the war. It also claims the main Russian invasion of Georgia began about 20 hours before its attack on Tskhinvali.

But the BBC understands that OSCE monitors have been unable to confirm that. Mr Grist said there were "provocations", including shooting incidents, by both the Georgian and the Ossetian sides in the run-up to the war. But he said Georgia was responsible for a "severe escalation" of the conflict in July.

For the first time in several years, it fired artillery rounds at targets within Tskhinvali - an incident he says he reported to a meeting of foreign diplomats in Georgia.

"At the briefing when these 20 or so ambassadors arrived," he said, "I made the point very clearly that this was a severe escalation.

Not only did it put our staff, and every civilian in Tskhinvali at risk, but [the town] has Russian peacekeepers. It would give the Russian Federation any excuse it needed to support its own troops."

Several hours before Georgia launched its major attack on Tskhinvali on August 7th, President Mikheil Saakashvili appeared on television to offer the separatist forces a unilateral ceasefire.

Georgia says South Ossetia ignored the peace offer and began intense firing on ethnic Georgian villages within the region.

The damage to Tskhinvali was due to several factors. One huge factor was the Russian aerial and artillery bombardment of the city
Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria
But that firing does not appear to have been recorded by Western military monitors. And Mr Grist told Newsnight Georgia was already moving artillery into position around Tskhinvali on the 7th, in apparent preparation for a possible assault on the town.

Highly questionable

His allegations have been strongly disputed by the Georgian government. The deputy foreign minister Giga Bokeria told the BBC that Georgia had called for an investigation into all the disputed facts and the credibility of Mr Grist's reports were "highly questionable".

He said: "The continuous attacks on Georgian controlled villages prior to 7th August are confirmed by numerous sources including the documented report by the OSCE."

All attempts of the Georgian government prior to the 7th August to engage in ceasefire negotiations with separatists had failed because the separatist had refused to meet. Earlier attempts by the OSCE and EU had also failed.

Georgia deeply regretted any loss of civilian life.

He said: "The damage to Tskhinvali was due to several factors. One huge factor was the Russian aerial and artillery bombardment of the city after Georgian forces took control of it after 8th August. This is not my version - this has been independently verified by numerous international organisations."

Mr Bokeria said there was extensive evidence Russia's involvement began 20 hours before Georgia's action.

Georgia argues that Russia, the main backer of the Ossetian separatists, had laid long-term plans to justify and prepare for a possible invasion of the territory, including the granting of Russian citizenship to thousands of South Ossetians and the building of new military installations.

But Mr Grist, who has worked as a monitor and peacekeeper in conflict zones for 15 years, said Georgia had not made sufficient efforts to reintegrate South Ossetia peacefully into the rest of the country.

"The Georgians were only ever lukewarm to this idea of peace," he said.

"There are many Ossetians who want to go to [the nearby Georgian town of] Gori to do their shopping.... Many Ossetians were tired [of the conflict], some I know personally are people who got involved in the early 90s [in fighting against Georgia] and almost through an accident of history have stayed in uniform since that time. And if more efforts had been made [by Georgia,] and a real hand held out to the South Ossetians, things could have been different."

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