BRUSSELS (Reuters) - An independent report blamed Georgia on Wednesday for starting last year’s five-day war with Russia, but said Moscow’s military response went beyond reasonable limits and violated international law.
The report commissioned by the European Union said both sides had broken international humanitarian laws and found evidence of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Georgians during Russia’s intervention in the rebel province of South Ossetia.
Each side said the report backed up its interpretation of the war. But the findings were particularly critical of U.S. ally Georgia’s conduct under President Mikheil Saakashvili and are likely to further damage his political standing.
They could also deepen Western concerns about his leadership and the stability of the former Soviet republic which have set back its hopes of joining NATO and the EU and shaken confidence in oil and gas routes running through the South Caucasus.
“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 Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who led the investigation.
The Kremlin was fast to praise what it describe as the key finding of the report. “We can only welcome that the commission found that the war was started by Georgia,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s spokeswoman Natalya Timakova told reporters.
The report said the war followed tensions and provocations by Russia, but Tagliavini said: “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.”
Saakashvili had said Georgia was responding to an invasion by Russian forces when it attacked breakaway South Ossetia, but the report found no evidence of this.
It said Russia’s counter-strike was initially legal, but its military response violated international law when Russian forces pushed into Georgia proper.
“Although it should be admitted that it is not easy to decide where the line must be drawn, it seems, however, that much of the Russian military action went far beyond the reasonable limits of defense,” the report said.
Russian forces pushed deep into Georgia, taking control of the main east-west highway, the Black Sea port of Poti and the strategic garrison town Gori. Russia has recognized South Ossetia and the other rebel province, Abkhazia, as independent states.
Russian jets bombed army bases and the military airport, and more than 100,000 civilians on both sides were displaced at the height of the conflict. Some have been unable to return.
Russia’s Foreign ministry rejected the criticism, saying on its website (www.mid.ru) Russian forces were using force to destroy positions used to attack South Ossetia.
Both South Ossetian leader Edurard Kokoity, and Russia’s ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, urged the West to review its support to Saakashvili.
“I expect those countries and leaders that have been vocal in supporting Mr Saakashvili will now think twice,” Chizhov said, clearly referring to the United States.
Georgia said the report proved Moscow had been preparing for conflict all along and broke international law by recognizing regions of Georgia as independent.
“The report proves that Russia was all the time preparing this war and August 7 and 8 were the culmination,” Georgian State Minister for Re-integration Temur Iakobashvili said.
But Saakashvili is likely to be privately concerned by the report. He could now face more political problems in Georgia, although he has survived months of protests and is unlikely to face a new leadership challenge.
Georgia also looks isolated, with Washington intent on setting aside some of its disagreements with Moscow in order to improve relations with its former Cold War foe.
Tbilisi says 228 Georgian civilians were killed in the war and 184 Georgian servicemen are dead or missing. Russia says 64 of its servicemen and 162 South Ossetian civilians were killed, but also says the figure for civilian deaths could be higher.
The report found no evidence to support Russian allegations that Georgia was carrying out genocide against the South Ossetian population.
But it said there were “serious indications” of ethnic cleaning against ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia and found Russian forces “would not or could not” stop atrocities by armed groups in areas they controlled.
Additional reporting by Pete Harrison in Brussels, Michael Stott and Matt Robinson in Moscow and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; editing by Philippa Fletcher