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29 Oct, 2008 23:52

BBC wakes up to Georgian ‘war crimes’

The BBC says it has obtained evidence that the Georgian army may have committed war crimes during August’s military offensive in South Ossetia.

Photographs taken by Russian journalists in the first days of the conflict tell a disturbing story. But it is only now – more than two months later – that the world is looking at these pictures and reflecting on their meaning. For many, they paint a picture of indiscriminate force used against unarmed civilians. It's a side of the story international broadcasters have been accused of ignoring.

A report by the BBC’s Newsnight programme suggests Georgia’s armed forces committed war crimes during their attack in August. The BBC says the evidence proving this comes from the first unrestricted visit to South Ossetia by their correspondent.

Taisiya Sitnik, or Taya, as the BBC reporter calls her, had spent many hours under the rubble of her apartment block in Tskhinval, with no food or water, in a dress covered with the blood of her dead son.

She had already shared her tragic story once with an RT correspondent, three days into the conflict. More than two months later the BBC is finally telling her story.

Richard Sakwa, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent in the UK, said he’d been inundated with messages complaining about how the Western media were covering the war.

“I’m a great believer in popular common sense – the amount of emails I received and other messages – because people know I’m involved in these questions – was astonishing! And the overwhelming message was disgust at the initial coverage by the BBC (it later did an excellent job) and in particular also CNN and other major western media. So what we are seeing is officialdom catching up with what I think was a genuine sense down below that we weren’t being fed the truth from the start,” Prof. Sakwa said.

Until recently Georgia had been seen by many as a small state that suffered at the hands of its big neighbour. But that perception is slowly changing. Georgia’s president, who has portrayed himself as the West’s closest ally, now has to defend himself.

“We strongly deny accusation of war crimes – but of course, we are very open for any kind of comments, we are very open for any kind of investigation,” Mikhail Saakashvili said.

Even Britain’s foreign secretary, known for his unconditional support of Georgia, is now changing his tune.

“On my visit to Tbilisi, of course, I raised at the highest level in Georgia, the questions that have been asked and raised about war crimes and other military actions by the Georgian authorities,” David Miliband said.

And this shift in Western attitudes seems to have improved relations between Russia and the UK, which have been at their lowest for decades.
“I think there has been a shift in the British government’s position on Russia in the last month or so. And some of Miliband’s recent statements reflect that,” says Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform.