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BBC Film Airs 'Georgian War Crime' Claims

One of Tskhinvali's bullet-ridden buildings.
One of Tskhinvali's bullet-ridden buildings.
(RFE/RL) -- The BBC says it has discovered evidence that Georgia may have committed war crimes against South Ossetian civilians during its military offensive to regain its breakaway region.

The detailed video report released by the broadcaster was shot during what the BBC says was the first unrestricted visit to South Ossetia by Western journalists since fighting erupted between Russia and Georgia in early August.

According to Georgian officials, Tbilisi on August 7 launched its military offensive against the separatist region in response to mounting attacks on ethnic-Georgian villages inside South Ossetia, which broke away from central Georgia rule in the early 1990s.

Russia has defended its subsequent decision to send in tanks to repel the Georgian forces, saying it was necessary to protect citizens of the pro-Moscow region. Many Western countries, meanwhile, have criticized the action as a violation of Georgia's territorial integrity.
If many of them did die, as appears, from indiscriminate force, that's a war crime no less real for being committed by a firm ally of the West.

The author of the BBC film, Tim Whewell, says his aim was to present the South Ossetian version of events, which he says "has barely been heard in the West."

In the report, Whewell describes shelled-out apartment buildings in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

"Tskhinvali hasn't been leveled to the ground, as the Russians claimed during the war," he says. "But houses that are still standing are often badly damaged inside. What is striking is how much destruction the Georgians inflicted in just a couple of days, and destruction mainly of ordinary homes. For the Ossetians, that constitutes a crime against humanity that the world has closed its eyes to."

Whewell interviews a city resident, Taya Sitnik, whose apartment block was heavily damaged during the Georgian attack.

"We were watching television when they started firing -- not from rifles, but from heavy weapons," Sitnik tells him. "Shells were exploding."

Sitnik then recalls how her son Georgy, a 21-year-old dental student, bled to death in her arms after a fragment from a Georgian tank shell hit him in the throat as they sheltered in their building's basement.

Human Rights Watch Findings

A doctor at Tskhinvali's main hospital also tells the BBC that her car was targeted by a Georgian tank as she and three relatives tried to escape from the town on the night of August 9.

The report shows footage of the car's burned-out wreckage riddled with bullet holes, and with a large tear in the front door.

The BBC's observations matches findings by Human Rights Watch, one of the few rights groups that gained access to South Ossetia in the immediate aftermath of the hostilities.

Human Rights Watch says it gathered evidence that Georgia used indiscriminate force against South Ossetian civilians and possibly even deliberately targeted the civilian population.

The organization blames Russia, too, for using cluster bombs -- indiscriminate munitions that cause long-term civilian casualties -- against Georgia.

A South Ossetian woman during a remembrance service in Tskhinvalii last month.
Indiscriminate use of force is a violation of the Geneva Conventions and can constitute a war crime -- a charge that both countries have vehemently refuted.

Whewell says he is in no way biased against Georgia. Although the film focuses chiefly on the war's human cost among South Ossetians, it also documents the systematic destruction of ethnic-Georgian homes inside the region.

He tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that his report simply seeks to set the record straight by showing a side of the war that has received only little media coverage in Western countries.

"I don't want to impose my own judgment here on who is right and who is wrong," he says. "But I must say South Ossetians feel strongly that due to geopolitical circumstances, they have been, as human beings, a little forgotten by the world -- especially by the West. They feel that their personal fate doesn't interest the West." Russia claims Georgian forces killed some 2,000 South Ossetian civilians during the conflict; Human Rights Watch believes between 300 and 400 is a more realistic estimate.

As Whewell points out, this would represent more than 1 percent of the population of Tskhinvali, or the equivalent of 70,000 deaths in London.

The West's support for Georgia, the report concludes, should not eclipse possible serious rights violations committed against civilians in South Ossetia:

"If many of them did die, as appears, from indiscriminate force," Whewell says, "that's a war crime no less real for being committed by a firm ally of the West."