Report says no side blameless in South Ossetia
Georgia instigated the brief but bitter war with Russia over disputed South Ossetia last August, the Swiss diplomat assigned to investigate the conflict has reported.
The probe, commissioned by the European Union and headed by Heidi Tagliavini, also charged that much of Russia's action "went far beyond" the limits of defence.
The 1,000-page report, which sought to clarify what caused the war last August, said the conflict followed "long periods of increasing tensions, provocations and incidents" between the two countries.
It affirmed that the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital "marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict".
"There is the question of whether the use of force by Georgia in South Ossetia...was justifiable under international law. It was not," the report's authors wrote.
The report went on to criticise Russia for conducting a devastating military campaign deep inside Georgia.
Within days, its troops had destroyed Georgian infrastructure and driven its forces out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another disputed territory.
"All this cannot be regarded as even remotely commensurate with the threat to Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia," the report said. It concluded that both sides broke international law.
The conflict killed around 850 people and injured thousands more. More than 100,000 civilians fled their homes.
War of words continues
"The political situation after the end of fighting turned out to be no easier and in some respects even more difficult than before," the report said.
Russia has since recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. It keeps thousands of troops in the regions and has blocked access by EU monitors.
Since the hostilities ended, the two sides have consistently blamed each other for starting the five-day conflict.
"It confirms what we've known all along – who started the war and who bears responsibility," said Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the EU.
Georgia dismissed this interpretation, saying the report proved Moscow had been preparing for conflict all along.
"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 told reporters. "The report is not about who started the war; the war did not start on August 7 or 8."
Georgia had claimed that its initial shelling and subsequent build-up of troops in the breakaway province were actions of self-defence. Investigators found no evidence that Russian troops had crossed into South Ossetia before the Georgian offensive.
"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," Tagliavini said in a written statement.
The investigation also criticised Russia for issuing passports to masses of residents of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia years before the war.
Victor Mauer, a Swiss expert on the region, also views this as provocation.
"What they did by handing out Russian passports, which under international law is illegal, [was] to stir the conflict and provoke Georgia into action," said Mauer, head of research at the Center for Security Studies in the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
But Mihkil Saakashvili, Georgia's pro-Western president, miscalculated in his response, according to Mauer. "He tried to get the West, especially Nato, involved," Mauer told swissinfo.ch.
That backfired. Without the backing of Nato, said Mauer, "there was no way whatsoever that Georgia could win this conflict."
Saakashvili's failure has undermined his country's hopes of soon becoming a Nato member and left him politically isolated. "There's not much of a future for him... neither in Georgia and definitely not in international politics," he said.
EU countries on Wednesday said in a statement they hoped the report "could contribute toward a better understanding of the origins and the course of last year's conflict."
Justin Häne, swissinfo.ch and agencies
Tagliavini and Switzerland
Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini led a group of 30 European military, legal and history experts to research the report.
The team included former Swiss Defence Minister Samuel Schmid.
Tagliavini was deputy head of the UN observer mission in Georgia from 1998-1999 and the Swiss ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2001-2002.
She was also a member of the first Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe assistance group to Chechnya, in 1995.
Switzerland represents Georgia's interests in Moscow and Moscow's interests in Tbilsi, the Georgian capital.
The line: "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 defence."
No genocide: "The Mission concludes that to the best of its knowledge allegations of genocide committed by the Georgian side in the context of the August 2008 conflict and its aftermath are neither founded in law nor substantiated by factual evidence."
Secession illegal: "South Ossetia did not have a right to secede from Georgia, and the same holds true for Abkhazia for much of the same reasons. Recognition of breakaway entities such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia by a third country is consequently contrary to international law."
Politics: "The political environment for a settlement of the conflict has in fact become more difficult following the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent States by one of the sides to the conflict."
The Ossetians are descended from the nomadic Scythian people.
They live on either side of the Caucasus mountain range; Ossetia is divided into two parts: the north is part of Russia while the South is part of Georgia.
South Ossetia has had de facto autonomy since the 1990s.
When Georgia became independent in 1991, its hardline nationalist president tried to clamp down on the autonomy of the Ossetian, Abkhaz and Ajari minorities.
Most of Abkhazia is currently de facto self-governing. Georgia managed to reimpose its authority in Ajaria in 1994 after ousting its authoritarian ruler.
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