After publishing in September the Georgian side’s evidence on the August war’s start, through which Tbilisi claimed it acted in self-defense in response to advancing Russian military, the New York Times published on November 6 “newly available accounts by independent military observers” which it said called into question Tbilisi’s assertions.
The NY Times report is based on accounts of OSCE military observers on the ground. The newspaper says that the accounts “are neither fully conclusive nor broad enough to settle the many lingering disputes over blame in a war... But they raise questions about the accuracy and honesty of Georgia’s insistence that its shelling of Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, was a precise operation.”
It says that the observations by the monitors, including a Finnish major, a Belarusian airborne captain and a Polish civilian, have been the subject of two confidential briefings to diplomats in Tbilisi - one in August and the other in October. Summaries were shared with The New York Times by people in attendance at both. Details were then confirmed by three Western diplomats and a Russian, and were not disputed by the OSCE mission in Tbilisi, according to the NY Times.
OSCE observers on the ground saw large numbers of Georgian artillery and grad rocket launchers massing on roads north of Gori at 3 p.m. on August 7, according to these accounts.
In the evening of August 7 President Saakashvili announced a unilateral ceasefire; few hours later, however, fire was exchanged. The Georgian officials say that South Ossetian separatist forces broke the ceasefire and launched heavy shelling of the Georgian villages. Zaza Gogava, who at the time was chief of staff of the armed forces, told the Georgian parliamentary commission studying the August events: “On August 7, 2008 at 11:35pm, I have received a phone call on the secured line from the Commander-in-Chief. He told me that developments went beyond all the limits and gave me three orders: 1. Stop all type of military coming into Georgia from Russia; 2. Suppress firing positions from where the Georgian peacekeepers and interior ministry’s posts, as well as the Georgian villages were fired constantly; 3. Protect interests and security of the civilian population while implementing these orders.”
The NY Times said it its article that 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,” the newspaper said based on the OSCE observers’ accounts.
It said that the observers made a record of the rounds exploding after Georgia’s bombardment began at 11:35 p.m on August 7. At 11:45 p.m., rounds were exploding at intervals of 15 to 20 seconds between impacts, they noted. 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, the NY Times writes.
Zaza Gogava, a former chief of army, and Alexandre Lomaia, the Secretary of National Security Council told the Georgian parliamentary commission on the August events, that the Georgian side used GRAD rockets only to suppress the South Ossetian forces’ firing positions in the Verkhny Garadok district of Tskhinvali, which, they said was not a civilian area. They have also claimed that precision targeting weapons, in particular DANA self-propelled artillery guns, were used to target firing positions in the Tskhinvali centre. The Georgian senior officials also said that the separatists forces were also using civilian installations to hide their artillery and from where the Georgian villages were targeted.
The NY Times writes, that the Georgia’s accounts were disputed by Ryan Grist, a former British Army captain who was the senior OSCE representative in Georgia when the war broke out. Grist said, according to the article, that he was in constant contact that night with all sides, with the office in Tskhinvali and with 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,” Grist said. “The attack was clearly, in my mind, an indiscriminate attack on the town, as a town.”
In August 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, the NY Times said.
A second briefing was led by Stephen Yong in October for military attachés visiting Georgia. At the meeting, according to a person in attendance, the NY Times writes, 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,” Young said, according to the person who attended. “They heard only occasional small-arms fire.”
The Georgian officials reject those accounts. “That information, I don’t know what it is and how it is confirmed,” Giga Bokeria, Georgia’s deputy foreign minister, told the NY Times. “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.”