Two former British military officers are expected to give crucial evidence against Georgia when an international inquiry is convened to establish who started the country’s bloody five-day war with Russia in August.
Ryan Grist, a former British Army captain, and Stephen Young, a former RAF wing commander, are said to have concluded that, before the Russian bombardment began, Georgian rockets and artillery were hitting civilian areas in the breakaway region of South Ossetia every 15 or 20 seconds.
Their accounts seem likely to undermine the American-backed claims of President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia that his little country was the innocent victim of Russian aggression and acted solely in self-defence.
During the war both Grist and Young were senior figures in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The organisation had deployed teams of unarmed monitors to try to reduce tension over South Ossetia, which had split from Georgia in a separatist struggle in the early 1990s with Russia’s support.
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On the night war broke out, Grist was the senior OSCE official in Georgia. He was in charge of unarmed monitors who became trapped by the fighting. Based on their observations, Grist briefed European Union diplomats in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, with his assessment of the conflict.
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Grist, who resigned from the OSCE shortly afterwards, has told The New York Times it was Georgia that launched the first military strikes against Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.
“It was clear to me that the [Georgian] attack was completely indiscriminate and disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation,” he said. “The attack was clearly, in my mind, an indiscriminate attack on the town, as a town.”
Last month Young gave a similar briefing to visiting military attachés, in which he reportedly supported the monitors’ assessment that there had been little or no shelling of Georgian villages on the night Saakashvili’s troops mounted an onslaught on Tskhinvali in which scores of civilians and Russian peacekeepers died.