Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Evidence in Georgia Belies Russia's Claims of 'Genocide'

The Wall Street Journal, 15th August 2008 15:05

By Andrew Osborn in Tskhinvali, Georgia, and Jeanne Whalen in Moscow

Russia's assertions that it was provoked into war by "genocide" in South Ossetia and that it is observing a cease-fire in Georgia came under new challenge Thursday, as the U.S. stepped up diplomatic pressure on Moscow.

Washington agreed to base missile interceptors on Polish soil, in a new sign of how Russia's invasion of Georgia is redrawing the geopolitical map.

On the ground in South Ossetia -- the contested region where fighting broke out last week between Georgia and Russia -- there was little evidence that Georgian attacks killed thousands of civilians, as Russia has said. Doctors said they had treated a few hundred people and one cited a confirmed death toll in the dozens.

Russia and Georgia agreed to a cease-fire Tuesday, and Russia has said it is keeping the peace in places such as Gori, the Georgian city where Russian tanks have taken up positions. That was belied by an incident inside Gori Thursday morning: A man seized the sport-utility vehicle of three United Nations officials at gunpoint, in full view of Russian troops who did nothing.

"Georgian cities remain . . . subject to hostile and aggressive behavior," said Georgia's ambassador to the U.N., Irakli Alasania. "Looting . . . and murder have become customary."

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said his nation is a victim of a "disinformation campaign of spectacular proportions." He said Russian troops "have never occupied Gori."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have repeatedly said that Georgian troops committed genocide against South Ossetians last week when the war broke out. Mr. Medvedev on Tuesday referred to "thousands" of South Ossetians killed in the conflict. Russia has cited this as a main reason for sending troops into the region.

Other Russian and South Ossetian officials have pegged the death toll as high as 2,000. They have maintained that Georgian troops razed the regional capital, Tskhinvali, and left it resembling Stalingrad after the long siege by Nazi troops during World War II. State-controlled television has shown footage of burning buildings and badly damaged infrastructure.

But on the ground in Tskhinvali, where most of the fighting during the five-day conflict occurred, there is little evidence of a high death toll.

In the city's main hospital, Ada Djueva said she and her colleagues had handled 45 corpses and about 273 injured people. During the fighting, when patients had been evacuated to the cellar, she said 220 surgical operations were conducted.

Dr. Djueva said the figure of 2,000 dead was "possible," adding that many corpses weren't brought to the hospital but buried in people's yards and gardens.

She said the situation had been complicated by the fact that a rocket had struck the city's morgue, rendering it unusable.

Alexander Ivanyus, the head of a temporary field hospital housed in about a dozen tents next to the hospital, said he and his colleagues had treated about 200 people since the start of hostilities, for gunshot, shrapnel, and land-mine-inflicted wounds. He said his staff had handled three dead bodies.

The Russian army declined to show journalists the city's cemetery, where it says many of the dead are buried. Lt. Col. Andrei Bobrun said that local people were hostile to Western journalists because of U.S. support for Georgia and a visit to the graveyard could be dangerous.

On Thursday, the only dead bodies on show in Tskhinvali were those of five Georgian soldiers. The troops lay in the middle of a road. They had been stripped down to their underwear, and their corpses were bloated from the hot Caucasian sun.

Nonetheless, Russian Col. Igor Konoshenko said there had earlier been "a sea of bodies" in the city's streets, including many women, children and elderly people. He said many were buried close to where they fell because of the heat and the continuing conflict, only to be reburied in the cemetery on Thursday. A local fighter, Murat Mestayev, added that his father and a young man he was friendly with had been killed. He said they died when a Georgian tank opened fire on the stairwell of the apartment block they had been sheltering in. He said he had buried them in his garden.

Nazira Guchmazova, a schoolteacher, said three women in her street had been buried in their gardens. Col. Bobrun said it would take a while to ascertain the final number of fatalities. That was because some civilians were still buried beneath rubble, while others had been buried by their loved ones at great speed. The odor of decaying flesh was strong on some streets.

The civil-liberties group Human Rights Watch, which accused both Russian and Georgian troops of causing civilian casualties, issued a report Wednesday suggesting that the number of dead in Tskhinvali was in the dozens, not more.

Mr. Medvedev this week ordered Russian investigators to gather evidence of the alleged genocide and bring the guilty parties to justice. Russia issued passports to most people in South Ossetia early this decade and has treated the Georgian attacks as crimes against its citizens.

On Thursday, investigators with the Russian prosecutor's office obtained a list of "more than 60 dead Russian citizens of Ossetian nationality," the Interfax news agency quoted an official with the prosecutor's office as saying. The official, Vladimir Markin, said he expected the investigation to last a while. Before the latest conflict, the population of South Ossetia was about 70,000 people.

The U.N. said Thursday that the war has created about 100,000 displaced people. That includes South Ossetians who fled to North Ossetia, which is part of Russia, and people in Georgia proper who fled the advancing Russian troops.

On Thursday, during a meeting with military commanders to thank them for their work, Mr. Medvedev maintained that South Ossetians had "lived through a genocide."

But even Russian television channels reported Thursday that life in Tskhinvali was getting back to normal, with people back out on the streets and fresh bread rolling off assembly lines at the local bread factory.