Russia, Georgia trade new allegations

September 16, 2008|By New York Times News Service

TBILISI, Georgia -

A new front has opened between Georgia and Russia, this one over which side was the aggressor whose military activities early last month ignited the lopsided five-day war. At issue is new inconclusive intelligence that paints a more complicated picture of the critical last hours before war broke out.

Georgia has released intercepted telephone calls purporting to show that part of a Russian armored regiment crossed into South Ossetia nearly a full day before Georgia's attack on the capital, Tskhinvali, late on Aug. 7.

The country is trying to counter accusations that the long-simmering standoff over South Ossetia, which borders Russia, tilted to war only after it attacked Tskhinvali. Georgia regards the enclave as its sovereign territory.

The intercepts circulated last week among intelligence agencies in the United States and Europe. Georgia argues that as a tiny and vulnerable nation allied with the West, it deserves extensive military and political support.

Georgia also provided audio files of the intercepts along with English translations to The New York Times, which made its own translation.

Russia, already facing deep criticism and the coolest audience in European capitals since the Cold War, is arguing vigorously against Georgia's claims.

In an interview arranged by the Kremlin, the Russian military played down the significance of the intercepted conversations, saying troop movements to the enclave before the war erupted were part of the normal rotation and replenishment of longstanding peacekeeping forces there.

Georgia claims that its main evidence - two of several calls secretly recorded by its intelligence service on Aug. 7 and Aug. 8 - shows that Russian tanks and fighting vehicles were already passing through the Roki Tunnel linking Russia to South Ossetia before dawn on Aug. 7.

By Russian accounts, the war began at 11:30 that night, when President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia ordered an attack on Russian positions in Tskhinvali. Russian combat units crossed the border into South Ossetia later, Russia has said.

Russia has not disputed the veracity of the phone calls, which were apparently made by Ossetian border guards on a private Georgian cell phone network.

Shota Utiashvili, the director of the intelligence analysis team at Georgia's Ministry of Interior, said the calls pointed to a Russian military incursion. "This whole conflict has been overshadowed by the debate over who started this war," he said. "These intercepted recordings show that Russia moved first and that we were defending ourselves."

But Gen. Lt. Nikolai Uvarov of Russia, a former U.N. military attache, who served as a Defense Ministry spokesman during the war, insisted that Georgia's attack completely surprised Russia, and that its leaders scrambled to respond while Russian peacekeeping forces were under fire.

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