When Russia’s tanks and fighter jets invaded Georgia last August, the Kremlin said its aim was to stop genocide in the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia. In a few days, Georgia’s military had slaughtered some 2,000 people there, Russian officials and their allies in the South Ossetian government claimed.
Last month, however, the head of the Russian federal prosecutor’s task force examining the war said the toll was just 162 civilians and 48 Russian soldiers killed.
By Tom Lasseter
The disinformation and brutality are among the lingering questions about last summer’s five-day war that President Barack Obama’s new foreign-policy team faces, and the answers will help shape U.S. relations with Georgia and, more important, with a resurgent Russia.
Eleven days before leaving office, the Bush administration signed a “strategic partnership” charter with Georgia that pledged cooperation with the former Soviet republic on defense, energy security and democratic development but made no specific U.S. commitments. To what extent Obama follows through may hinge on how the new president interprets the events of the Russia-Georgia war.
Russia’s false allegations of genocide paved the way for what now appear to be war crimes: Protected by Russian tanks, South Ossetian militias looted and torched Georgian villages in an attempt to “cleanse” ethnic Georgians from the small mountainous region of South Ossetia.
“Clearly, torture, execution, rape, these are war crimes,” said Giorgi Gogia, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Georgia who said that his organization had documented that behavior by South Ossetians.
In addition, Gogia said, Russian forces in many cases participated in the looting and burning of ethnic Georgian homes or stood by as their South Ossetian counterparts did so. At least 17 ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia were “pretty much razed to the ground,” according to Gogia, a conclusion bolstered by satellite imagery from the United Nations. More than 20,000 ethnic Georgians are said to have fled to other parts of the country.
The South Ossetian fighters, who were or should have been under Russian control, tortured at least four Georgian military prisoners of war and executed three others, Gogia said.
“As an occupying power in Georgia, Russia failed overwhelmingly … to ensure law and order,” Gogia said.
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