Thursday, October 1, 2009

BRUSSELS | Georgia’s attack on its breakaway South Ossetia region marked the start of last year’s war with Russia, which retaliated with excessive force, a European Union-commissioned report said Wednesday.

The report on the five-day war in August 2008 lays blame on both sides, but cited Georgia as starting the conflict with its night shelling in South Ossetia - an act it said was not justifiable under international law.

The EU report went on to blame Russia for conducting a military campaign deep inside Georgia. “All this cannot be regarded as even remotely commensurate with the threat to Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia,” the report said.

Russia’s retaliation went “far beyond the reasonable limits of defense,” it said, criticizing the devastating Russian assault on a tiny neighbor that in recent years has moved closer to the West with hopes of joining NATO.

In a first reaction, both sides said the report vindicated them. The Russian Foreign Ministry said “the core conclusion of the report is that the current leadership of Georgia unleashed the aggression.”

Georgia’s EU ambassador, Salome Samadashvili, said the question of who fired first on Aug. 7, 2008, was immaterial without considering two decades of friction.

She said the “report gives the full context,” referring to Russia’s invasion of Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia’s EU envoy, Vladimir Chizhov, said it was “not a pro-Russian report, [but] it provides an unequivocal answer to the main question of ‘Who started the war?’ ”

Georgia’s assault on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali “marked the beginning of large-scale hostilities,” Mr. Chizhov said. “Of course, this had been preceded … by a lengthy period of growing tensions and provocations.”

The report, written by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, also addressed claims of ethnic cleansing of Georgians living in South Ossetia, but did not pinpoint who it thought responsible.

“There was evidence of systematic looting and destruction of ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia. Consequently, several elements suggest the conclusion that ethnic cleansing was indeed practiced,” said the report, which is based on research by 30 European military, legal and history experts.

Georgia welcomed the conclusion.

“It’s very important that this report verifies that there was a massive violation of human rights, ethnic cleansing conducted by so-called South Ossetian troops on the ground … and tolerated by Russian forces,” Georgian Cabinet minister Temur Yakobashvili said.

Western capitals have generally tended to see Russia as the aggressor. EU countries said in a statement they hoped the report “can contribute toward a better understanding of the origins and the course of last year’s conflict.”

Mr. Chizhov said the report should encourage reconsideration among “those leaders who have been hesitant” to blame Georgia for the war.

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