International Criminal Court (ICC) judges have authorized prosecutors to open an investigation into alleged war crimes committed "in and around South Ossetia" during 2008 when Russia fought a brief war against Georgia over the breakaway region.
In a January 27 statement, the judges said there were grounds to believe that "crimes against humanity" were committed from July 1 through October 10, 2008 -- including the time of the conflict, which led to Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, as sovereign states.
The investigation will be the first by the ICC to examine a conflict outside of Africa.
Russia has maintained troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the five-day war in August 2008 against Georgia, which at the time was led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, a vocal Kremlin critic whose efforts to bring Georgia into NATO rattled Moscow.
The ICC statement said the alleged crimes included "murder, forcible transfer of population and persecution, and war crimes, such as attacks against the civilian population, willful killing, [and] intentionally directing attacks against peacekeepers."
It said it received "the representations by or on behalf of 6,335 victims on this matter" on December 4.
The three-judge ICC panel's January 27 decision noted allegations of war crimes by Georgian, South Ossetian, and Russian forces.
ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked for a green light for an investigation in October, after finding that up to 113 ethnic Georgian civilians had been killed and up to 18,500 victimized in a "forcible displacement campaign" run by self-proclaimed authorities in South Ossetia, a mainly Russian-speaking region.
ICC prosecutors estimate "that the ethnic Georgian population living in the conflict zone was reduced by at least 75 percent."
Bensouda also said in October that opposing Georgian and South Ossetian forces appeared to have killed 12 peacekeepers, both Russian and Georgian, while Georgian forces had attacked a medical facility.
The ICC panel said that a "campaign of violence against ethnic Georgians by South Ossetian forces" warranted an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity.
The judges noted that "there is sufficient indication" that Russia "exercised overall control over the South Ossetian forces," meaning that "the period before the direct intervention of Russian forces may be seen as an international armed conflict."
They added, however, that this is "irrelevant at the present stage" because "the war crimes under consideration exist equally in international and non-international armed conflicts."
Saakashvili, a pro-Western leader who established close ties with the United States and the EU in a bid to diminish Moscow's influence on his country, launched an offensive to reclaim South Ossetia on the night of August 7-8, 2008. He says Tbilisi was provoked by Russia and the separatists.
Russia responded with a counteroffensive in which its forces routed the Georgian military and swept beyond South Ossetia, which Tbilisi has not controlled since 1990, and deep into Georgian territory before withdrawing.
Only a handful of countries have recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which comprise around 20 percent of Georgian territory, and Moscow's backing of the regions has drawn broad international condemnation.
The ICC is currently considering whether to open an investigation into crimes committed in Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have battled Kyiv's forces in the east of the country in a war that has killed more than 9,000 since April 2014.
Russia is not a party to the ICC, which has been criticized for launching investigations only in Africa since it was established 13 years ago.