Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Georgian assault started 2008 war - EU-backed report

By Timothy Heritage

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - An unjustified Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia started last year's five-day war with Russia, a report sponsored by the European Union said on Wednesday.

Russia's envoy to the European Union in Brussels Vladimir Chizhov holds up an EU-sponsored report on last year's war between Russia and Georgia, during a news conference in Brussels September 30, 2009. (REUTERS/Yves Herman)

The report also criticised Russia, saying its response to the Georgian military strike went "beyond reasonable limits", but its findings were particularly critical of Georgia's conduct under President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The findings are likely to further damage Saakashvili's political standing in Georgia, and underline Western concerns that have set back his former Soviet republic's hopes of one day joining the NATO defence alliance.

The report said the war was "the culminating point of a long period of increasing tensions (and) provocations".

But it added: "The shelling of Tskhinvali (in South Ossetia) by the Georgian armed forces during the night of 7 to 8 August 2008 marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia."

This fell into line with the general view in most Western capitals that U.S. ally Georgia launched an assault on the rebel province of South Ossetia on the night of Aug 7, against a backdrop of provocations from Moscow and Tbilisi.

Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini who led the investigation, said in a written statement: "None of the explanations given by the Georgian authorities in order to provide some form of legal justification for the attack lend it a valid explanation."

Russia responded with a counter-strike, driving back Georgian forces and pushing further into Georgia. Moscow later recognised South Ossetia and the other breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia as independent states, backed by Russian forces.


The report said Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian forces had all violated international humanitarian law in the five-day conflict and the risk of new confrontation "remains serious".

It concluded that Russia's first military response to the Georgian assault was "legal" for defensive purposes, but much of Moscow's subsequent military action went beyond reasonable limits.

"It's not a pro-Russian report," said Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the European Union. "It confirms what we've know all along -- who started the war and who bears responsibility."

Georgia dismissed this interpretation, saying the report proved Moscow had been preparing for conflict all along.

"The report proves that Russia was all the time preparing this war and August 7 and 8 were the culmination," Georgian State Minister for Re-integration Temur Iakobashvili told reporters.

"The report is not about who started the war; the war did not start on August 7 or 8," he said.

The Geneva-based International Independent Fact Finding Mission into the Conflict in Georgia (IIFFMCG) has investigated the conflict since early 2009 and is led by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini.

Tbilisi says 228 Georgian civilians were killed and 184 Georgian servicemen are dead or missing. Russia says 64 of its servicemen and 162 South Ossetian civilians were killed, but Moscow says the figure for civilian deaths could be higher.

More than 100,000 civilians on both sides were displaced at the height of the conflict. Several thousand South Ossetian civilians remain homeless and some 25,000 Georgians have been unable to return to South Ossetia.

(Additional reporting by Michael Stott and Matt Robinson in Moscow, Pete Harrison, and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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