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26th Feb 2024

Georgia accused of war crimes in South Ossetia

The BBC, the UK public broadcaster, has found evidence in South Ossetia that appears to indict Georgian troops of having targeted civilians during their August attack on Tskhinvali, a claim strongly denied by Tbilisi. Meanwhile, Russian officials have told the EU that unless it recognises the two breakaway regions, it is to keep its monitors out.

After a visit to Tskhinvali - the capital of South Ossetia - the BBC reported on Tuesday (28 October) evidence including a heavily bombed apartment building that suggests Georgia used indiscriminate force and may have targeted civilians - an action that qualifies as a war crime under international law.

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  • Russian troops are set to stay for a long time in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with no perspective so far for the EU monitors to be let in. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Taya Sitnik, a college lecturer, told the BBC her 21-year-old son bled to death in her arms on the morning of 9 August after a fragment from a Georgian tank shell hit him in the throat as they were both sheltering from artillery fire in the basement of her block of flats.

Mrs Sitnik said she subsequently saw the tank positioned a few metres from the building, firing shells into every floor. Extensive damage to the five-story block appeared consistent with her version of events, the BBC reports.

British foreign secretary David Miliband called the Georgian action "reckless," while also saying the Russian response was "disproportionate and wrong."

"On my visit to Tbilisi of course I raised at the highest level in Georgia, the questions that have been asked and raised about war crimes and other military actions by the Georgian authorities," he told the BBC.

"We have acted in this without fear, without favour," Mr Miliband said.

President Mikhail Saakashvili "strongly denied" such accusations, saying that he is open to international investigations.

"There were certainly war crimes committed, certainly not by us," he said.

Mr Saakashvili pointed to the fact that South Ossetian villages formerly under Georgian control were "100 percent destroyed."

The BBC visit confirmed the systematic destruction of villages inside South Ossetia that were inhabited by ethnic Georgians. Some of the homes were not only burned by Ossetians, but also bulldozed by the Russian-backed authorities.

Several Russian rights groups Tuesday denounced the pillaging by Ossetians of Georgian villages on the border of South Ossetia, where people have tried to return to their homes after the August war, AFP reports.

In the Akhalgori district, control of which passed to the Russians and Ossetians after the war, some "Ossetian officials insist that people take Russian citizenship," said Tatiana Kassatkina of Russian human-rights NGO Memorial, adding that more than 2,000 residents have left the district.

EU has to keep out

EU monitors are not to enter South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the Duma's chair of the foreign affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachev, said on Tuesday on separate occasions.

Mr Lavrov said after meeting in St. Petersburg with his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, that security in the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia "is assured by Russian military contingents after the recognition of their independence by Russia.

"As far as the European Union monitors are concerned, we believe the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan should be respected. It says they should be deployed in areas adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Mr Lavrov said.

Speaking at a debate in Brussels at De Buren, a Flemish-Dutch cultural institute, Mr Kosachev said South Ossetia and Abkhazia "are now two independent states" and they would not accept the presence of EU monitors "because they don't trust the EU as a mediator."

As long as the EU does not show "flexibility" on the recognition issue, but insists on the territorial integrity of Georgia, there will be no chance for the EU monitors to enter the two breakaway regions, Mr Kosachev said.

The European monitoring mission (EUMM), comprising 225 unarmed observers, has a mandate "throughout the territory of Georgia," which in the EU's view includes the two breakaway provinces.

The EU has called for its monitors to be allowed into the rebel regions to monitor the ceasefire, but Moscow and rebel leaders have so far refused.

Russia, initially part of the 500 manned peace-keeping force in South Ossetia, has announced a build up of up to 3,700 regular troops to, according to the Kremlin, ensure security in the breakaway province, as well as sending out FSB agents to secure the border, the Kommersant newspaper reports.

Lithuania opposes resumption of EU-Russia talks

Meanwhile, Vilnius is deeply concerned by French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner's apparent suggestion that EU-Russia talks could be unfrozen at a summit next month, a Lithuanian official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"We're absolutely shocked by the idea," he said. "The minister is basically suggesting the breach of a deal that his own president struck with Russia."

Earlier Tuesday, Mr Kouchner, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation European Union, had met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

"I think I can tell you that the negotiations on the new partnership accord will be able to go ahead," Mr Kouchner said after the meeting in St. Petersburg.

"As long as there are no surprises before the 13th, I think we can find a new timetable," he said, referring to the date of the EU-Russia summit in the southern French city of Nice.

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