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Georgia Says Phonetaps Show Russia Launched War


Russian troops in Tskhinvali last month

Russian troops in Tskhinvali last month

TBILISI (Reuters) -- Georgia has produced telephone intercepts it said proved Russian armor entered Georgia hours before the start of a Georgian attack that Moscow said forced it to send in its troops.

The release of the intercepts comes as both Moscow and Tbilisi wage a diplomatic and public relations campaign to prove the other side fired the first shot in a war that killed hundreds of people and caused widespread devastation.

Russia said the evidence was "not serious." The force movements referred to in the intercepts may, it said, have been a routine rotation by Russian peacekeeping forces already operating in Georgia before the war broke out early last month.

The intercepts, a transcript of which was provided to Reuters by the Georgian Interior Ministry, purport to be of telephone conversations between security officials in South Ossetia, the separatist region at the center of the war.

Reuters has not been able to independently verify the intercepts are authentic. One transcript quotes a border guard near South Ossetia's border with Russia as stating early on August 7 that Russian armor was crossing into South Ossetia.

"The intercepted calls confirm that the first units of the Russian regular army with heavy armor had entered and passed through the Roki tunnel during the early morning of August 7, more than 12 hours before Georgian forces started to mobilize," the ministry said in a "background memo" to the transcripts.

'Not Serious'

Russia says it was forced to launch an air, land, and sea assault against Georgia to halt a "genocide" by Georgia against South Ossetians, many of whom hold Russian passports.

But pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said last week Moscow started the war by invading his country.

Western states have condemned Russian actions, though some have also expressed doubts about Georgia's own role in the build-up to the conflict -- concerns that may hinder Tbilisi's ambition of being invited to join NATO.

Asked about the transcripts, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told a news briefing in Moscow, "This planting sometimes of news about 'What we heard or what we overheard,' that is not serious."

He said satellite images acquired by NATO states would prove clearly that Georgia was the aggressor, opening fire on the breakaway capital Tskhinvali with heavy artillery. He said those images should be made available to the rest of the world.

Armor Arriving

One intercept Georgia said was made at 03:52 on August 7 purported to have the voice of an official at the South Ossetian border guard office in Tskhinvali and the duty officer at the Roki Tunnel, the land entrance to South Ossetia from Russia.

The Georgian Interior Ministry provided its own translation of the recordings into English:

- Border guard HQ: "Has the armor already entered?"
- Duty officer: "Armor and people."
- Border guard HQ: "Did they enter now?"
- Duty officer: "Yes, when I called you for the first time they had already come out of the tunnel, around 20 minutes ago."

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told Reuters Tbilisi had "plenty of other evidence" it had shared with Western intelligence agencies.

A senior U.S. diplomat said the information in the transcripts was in line with what Georgian officials told him at the time. Washington is Georgia's closest major-power ally and has been highly critical of Russia over the war.

"Literally in the heat of the battle, it seemed genuinely true to me...that senior Georgian leaders truly believed that Russian forces had already moved through the Roki Tunnel late in the night on August 7," U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told Reuters in Tbilisi.
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