Friday, November 07, 2008

Was Georgia on their mind?

WHILE we wait to see just how much change Barack Obama is really going to deliver, and whether his administration will try to extract America from two wars, what looked dangerously like kicking off a third, and potentially biggest conflict is coming under critical light. Military observers employed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe,(OSCE) have made a report which discounts the Georgian government's line that it was the innocent victim of Russian aggression.

The observers say the Georgian military attacked Tskhinvali , the capital of the breakaway South Ossetia region on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.

Georgian president Mikhail Saskashvili had claimed the attack was a precise and defensive action to prevent Ossetian shelling of Georgian villages. At other times official Georgian spokespersons variously claimed their forces were acting to restore order, or to halt a Russian invasion.

American and British governments and politicians like Tory David Cameron rallied to Georgia's side and condemned Russian intervention. Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Georgia's membership of NATO was on track.

The O.S. C.E monitors, whose evidence is reported in today's New York Times, confirm what we even saw on TV, when Georgian forces used multiple rocket launchers to assault the South Ossetian capital. They record that on the night of August 7 and 8, Georgian artillery rounds and rockets were falling throughout the city at intervals of 15 to 20 seconds between explosions. Within the first hour of the bombardment at least 48 rounds landed in a civilian area. The monitors have also said they were unable to verify that ethnic Georgian villages were under heavy bombardment that evening, calling to question one of Mr. Saakashvili’s main justifications for the attack.

Georgian deputy Foreign minister Giga Bekeria has urged Western governments to disregard the OSCE report. “That information, I don’t know what it is and how it is confirmed,” he said. “There is such an amount of evidence of continuous attacks on Georgian-controlled villages and so much evidence of Russian military buildup, it doesn’t change in any case the general picture of events.”

He added: “Who was counting those explosions? It sounds a bit peculiar.”

Russia's deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin, on the other hand, says the report reflects "the actual course of events prior to Georgia’s aggression.” He added that the accounts “refute” allegations by Tbilisi of bombardments that he called mythical.

The O.S.C.E. is an organization with 56 member states, and eperience in many conflict zones. Its observers have been monitoring the Georgian conflicts since a previous cease-fire agreement in the 1990s. The monitors, including a Finnish major, a Belarussian airborne captain and a Polish civilian, have submitted material in two confidential briefings to diplomats in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, one in August and the other in October.

Georgia's attack backfired, bringing the Russian invasion it was supposed to stop, with heavy damage to Georgian cities, and ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages by Ossetian, Chechen and Cossack irregulars. Saakashvili compared Russia’s incursion the Nazi annexations in Europe in 1938 and the Soviet suppression of Prague in 1968, but he faces unease among Georgians who asked why their government was so reckless, and skepticism from some of Georgia's allies.

cording to the monitors, an O.S.C.E. patrol at 3 p.m. on Aug. 7 saw large numbers of Georgian artillery and grad rocket launchers massing on roads north of Gori, just south of the enclave.At 6:10 p.m., the monitors were told by Russian peacekeepers of suspected Georgian artillery fire on Khetagurovo, an Ossetian village; this report was not independently confirmed, and Georgia declared a unilateral cease-fire shortly thereafter, about 7 p.m. During a news broadcast that began at 11 p.m., Georgia announced that Georgian villages were being shelled, and declared an operation “to restore constitutional order” in South Ossetia. The bombardment of Tskhinvali started soon after the broadcast.

According to the monitors, however, no shelling of Georgian villages could be heard in the hours before the Georgian bombardment. At least two of the four villages that Georgia has since said were under fire were near the observers’ office in Tskhinvali, and the monitors there likely would have heard artillery fire nearby.

Moreover, the observers made a record of the rounds exploding after Georgia’s bombardment began at 11:35 p.m. At 11:45 p.m., rounds were exploding at intervals of 15 to 20 seconds between impacts, they noted.At 12:15 a.m. on Aug. 8, Gen. Maj. Marat M. Kulakhmetov, commander of Russian peacekeepers in the enclave, reported to the monitors that his unit had casualties, indicating that Russian soldiers had come under fire.

By 12:35 a.m. the observers had recorded at least 100 heavy rounds exploding across Tskhinvali, including 48 close to the observers’ office, which is in a civilian area and was damaged.

Georgian officials told Western diplomats that Ossetians had weapons in civilian buildings, making them legitimate targets. Bush administration officials went along with this.“The Georgians have been quite clear that they were shelling targets — the mayor’s office, police headquarters — that had been used for military purposes,” said Matthew J. Bryza, a deputy assistant US secretary of state.

The New York Times says the Georgian official story was disputed by Ryan Grist, a former British Army captain who was the senior O.S.C.E. representative in Georgia when the war broke out. Mr. Grist said that he was in constant contact that night with all sides, with the office in Tskhinvali and with Wing Commander Stephen Young, the retired British military officer who leads the monitoring team.

“It was clear to me that the attack was completely indiscriminate and disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation,” Mr. Grist said. “The attack was clearly, in my mind, an indiscriminate attack on the town, as a town.”

Ryan Grist has served as a military officer or diplomat in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kosovo and Yugoslavia. "In August, after the Georgian foreign minister, Eka Tkeshelashvili, who has no military experience, assured diplomats in Tbilisi that the attack was measured and discriminate, Mr. Grist gave a briefing to diplomats from the European Union that drew from the monitors’ observations and included his assessments. He then soon resigned under unclear circumstances.

"A second briefing was led by Commander Young in October for military attachés visiting Georgia. At the meeting, according to a person in attendance, Commander Young stood by the monitors’ assessment that Georgian villages had not been extensively shelled on the evening or night of Aug. 7. 'If there had been heavy shelling in areas that Georgia claimed were shelled, then our people would have heard it, and they didn’t,'Commander Young said, according to the person who attended. 'They heard only occasional small-arms fire.'

Georgia Claims on Russia War Called Into Question

Both American and Israeli military advisers were in Georgia before the August attack. Did their presence encourage the Georgian commanders to think they could launch a successful attack? Was the Georgian government led to believe it could count on Western backing? Was the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office aware of the OSCE monitors report, including the views of British officers, when David Miliband said that Georgia's NATO membership could go ahead? How much does the FCO know about the resignation of Ryan Grist?



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