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Probe says Georgia started war amid Russian provocation

Brussels — Georgia sparked a five-day war with Russia last year by attacking rebel South Ossetia, an investigating team said Wednesday, but it also accused Moscow of violating international law.

In a report of some 1,150 pages handed to EU ambassadors Wednesday, the 19-member commission found that while Russia had ratcheted up tensions prior to the conflict, Georgia fired the first shots.

Yet despite the conclusions, both sides claimed the probe found in their favour, even though pressure is sure to mount on Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

"Open hostilities began with a large scale Georgian military operation against the town of Tskhinvali and the surrounding areas launched in the night of 7th to 8th August, 2008," said the report, published on the Internet.

It belied repeated claims by Saakashvili that the attack in South Ossetia’s main city was launched after Russian tanks moved into the breakaway region.

More than 250 people were killed and some 118,000 others fled their homes in the war, which was halted by a European Union-brokered ceasefire.

"In the mission’s view, it was Georgia which triggered off the war when it attacked Tskhinvali (in South Ossetia) with heavy artillery on the night of 7 to 8 August, 2008," said the head of the team, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavina.

"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," she said.

"In particular, there was no massive Russian military invasion under way, which had to be stopped by Georgian military forces shelling Tskhinvali," she added in a statement accompanying the report’s release.

But the investigating team, commissioned by the EU last December to look into the causes of the war, also found substantial evidence against Russia.

"The Russian side, too, carries the blame for a substantial number of violations of international law," said Tagliavina.

She said Moscow’s actions included conferring Russian citizenship en masse to people living in South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia.

She said Russia had broken international law in that "the military action by the Russian Armed Forces on Georgian territory, (was) far beyond the needs of a proportionate defence of Russian peacekeepers in Tskhinvali."

Russia’s later recognition of the independence of both rebel regions "must be considered as being not valid in the context of international law, and as violations of Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty," she said.

The investigators also found evidence that both sides were involved in ethnic cleansing against Georgians and their villages and settlements in South Ossetia.

Despite the conclusions, both Russia and Georgia Wednesday welcomed the report, saying that it vindicated their actions.

Moscow’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told reporters in Brussels that the findings provided "unequivocal confirmation of who started the war — it was Georgia."

He said they provided further evidence that the Georgian president should step down.

"I think Mr Saakashvili should have resigned a long time ago," he said.

Georgia, for its part, said the report was proof that Russia had invaded Georgia, violating its territorial integrity.

"The allegations of my country have been proven. It was Georgia which came under invasion from another country, in violation of the international law," its ambassador to the EU, Salome Samadashvili, said.

A source close to the commission — which had a budget of 1.6 million euros (2.34 million dollars) — said it does not want its report used as a basis for any legal action.

Apart from the human cost, the short war decimated Georgia’s armed forces and set back for at least a decade any hopes the former Soviet republic has of joining the NATO military alliance.

Lorne Cook/AFP/Expatica