Georgia mounts fight-back after accusations of aggression

Fresh witness accounts have undermined Georgia's portrayal of its onslaught on the breakaway territory of South Ossetia as a purely defensive operation, and prompted authorities to launch a fightback to counter allegations that it is rewriting the history of its six-day war with Russia.

Amnesty International will today be the latest to challenge the Georgian narrative in an authoritative 76-page report which accuses Georgia and Russia of war crimes during the short, sharp war triggered by the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on 7 August. The war, ended by French mediation after Russia invaded Georgia proper in a land, sea and air assault, triggered the most serious crisis in international relations since the Cold War.

The Amnesty report specifically accuses Georgian forces of having committed "indiscriminate attacks" on 7 August "causing deaths and injuries among South Ossetian civilians and considerable damage to civilian objects". It says: "Serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed by all sides."

Ryan Grist, the head of the international monitoring group during the conflict, told The Independent that when the war started the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali "did still contain women and children" who should have been protected from the conflict which had built up over months.

Mr Grist, then the acting head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, also said that the three OSCE monitors in Tskhinvali were unable to confirm Georgian claims that three villages outside the South Ossetian capital had been targeted by separatist shelling in the hour before Georgia launched its main assault.

A BBC Newsnight reporter allowed by the Russians to report from Tskhinvali last month saw evidence of the damage inflicted by Georgian Grad rockets – which cannot be targeted accurately – on residential areas.

Georgia, concerned that it is losing ground in public opinion in Britain and the US, where ministers had accused Russia of a "disproportionate" res-ponse, has launched a damage limitation exercise by dispatching the former Soviet republic's most senior negotiator to London yesterday.

The Foreign Minister, Eka Tkeshelashvili, is also on her way as Georgia tries to bolster support for its strategic goal of Nato membership one month before Nato ministers decide whether to keep Georgia and Ukraine on track for future admission despite the war.

The Georgian envoy Temuri Yakobashvili, the Minister for Reintegration, told The Independent his government had co-operated with Amnesty investigators but said Georgia would demand to see "proof" before commenting on the war crimes allegations.

He strongly denied that Georgian credibility had been undermined by the commander of Georgian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, who publicly stated that the order to attack Tskhinvali had been given to "restore constitutional order". The officer, Mamuka Kurash-vili, has been fired, although Mr Yakobashvili said his sacking was a separate matter. "The President never said anything like 'Liberate South Ossetia, restore territorial integrity'," Mr Yakobashvili said.

He said he was sitting beside the President at the palace in Tbilisi when the Georgian leader gave the order to attack Tskhinvali at about 11.30pm on 7 August. "He gave three orders, 'Stop the Russian column of tanks, and shut down those places firing at Georgian villages'. He then hung up, picked up the phone again, and said, 'Minimum civilian casualties'. These are the three orders. Even if you say restore constitutional order, that does not imply to liberate Ossetia, to regain it. That is a very stretched interpretation."

Another factor that has led to questions over Georgia's account is Tbilisi's delay in producing evidence for what it called the "tipping point" that led to its offensive on Tskhinvali. The government produced only telephone intercepts in support of its contention that 150 Russian tanks had crossed into South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel, one month after the conflict. The Georgians say it was only after confirmation of the entry of Russian armed forces into Georgian territory that the Georgian military entered the conflict zone.

Mr Yakobashvili said it had taken so long to produce the intercepts, which were passed to US and European intelligence agencies, because they had been lost during the transfer of surveillance operations from Tbilisi to the central town of Gori. Officials had to sift through 6,000 files to retrieve the information. He also said Tbilisi had two other separate sources for its claim, but that they were confidential. A Western diplomat familiar with the intercepts said they appeared authentic although "it shows movement but not the beginning of an attack".

Amnesty suggests "there was deliberate misinformation and exaggerated reports during the conflict, and particularly in its early stages". Russia, for example, accused Georgia of "genocide" on 9 August when the Kremlin said that 2,000 civilians had been killed. On 12 October, the Russians revised the death toll to 159.

The EU is to announce the first international investigation, to be led by a Swiss lawyer, on the events leading up to the war and the conflict itself.

Timeline: What happened on the night war was declared

*7 August

5pm: Russian-brokered talks between Georgia and South Ossetia collapse

7pm: The Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, declares a unilateral ceasefire but Georgian tanks and troops are already on the move

8.30pm: Russian peacekeepers inform the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) of suspected Georgian artillery fire on Khetagurovo in South Ossetia

10.30pm: Two Georgian peacekeepers are killed and six are injured when South Ossetian rebels open fire on Georgian positions

11pm: Georgia says the villages of Kurta, Tamarasheni and Avnevi, near South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali, are bombarded by South Ossetian separatists.

11-11.30pm: Georgians say they receive confirmation of entry of 150 Russian tanks into South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel. Russia says its tanks only entered the tunnel after Georgia attacked Tskhinvali, killing 15 Russian peacekeepers.

11.30: President Saakashvili speaks with military commanders and orders a Georgian attack on Tskhinvali. Grad rocket attacks last four to five hours but the Georgians claim that Grad missiles are not used in populated areas.

11.45pm: Shells fall on Tskhinvali every 15-20 seconds, OSCE monitors report.

*8 August

12.15am: Russian commander says his peacekeepers have taken casualties. Russia later invades Georgia to "protect civilians and Russian peacekeepers".

Read the full Amnesty report at www.amnesty.org.uk

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