Georgia Claims Self-Defense In Russian War, Citing Intercepted Cell Phone Calls

10/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

TBILISI, Georgia — In a bid to portray Russia as the aggressor in last month's war, Georgia has released recordings of what it says are two intercepted cell phone calls purporting to show that Moscow invaded before Georgia's offensive against South Ossetia.

The recordings released Tuesday, if authentic, will not cut through the fog of the final hours when escalating tensions burst into war. But President Mikhail Saakashvili hopes they will help dispel a dominant narrative that says his country was on the attack. He said they prove Russian tanks and troops entered South Ossetia many hours before Georgia began its offensive against separatist forces.

"Evidence in the form of telephone intercepts and information that we have from numerous eyewitnesses conclusively prove that Russian tanks and armored columns invaded our territory before the conflict began," Saakashvili told reporters.

Together, the two purported intercepts last less than two minutes. But so far, they are Saakashvili's best argument in his bid to turn the tables against Russia.

Since the war that killed hundreds of people and drove nearly 200,000 from their homes, Moscow has relentlessly cast Saakashvili as an unstable leader who struck first, forcing a response.

Saakashvili says he tried to ease tensions with a unilateral cease-fire, but that Russia's leaders had made up their minds.

"It looks like the decision had been made in Moscow prior to that, and nothing was going to change it on the ground," Saakashvili told The Associated Press.

Russia has always cast Georgia as the aggressor, saying it only responded militarily to defend Russian citizens and peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia from a Georgian offensive that began late on Aug. 7.

Georgia says the intercepted phone calls show Russian forces entered South Ossetia before dawn that day.

The calls are between a South Ossetian border guard at the southern mouth of the Roki tunnel, which leads across the mountainous border from Russia into the separatist Georgian province, and another guard at headquarters in the regional capital, Georgia says.

The recordings were first released to The New York Times, which reported their contents Tuesday. A Georgian Interior Ministry official, Shota Utiashvili, played two of the recordings for the AP and provided printed English translations from the original Ossetian.

In the first call, which purportedly began at 3:41 a.m. on Aug. 7, the South Ossetian guard at the tunnel says "they have moved armored personnel carriers out and the tunnel is full."

In the next call, about 10 minutes later, the guard says that "armor and people" had emerged from the tunnel about 20 minutes earlier. Asked whether there was a lot of armor, the guard says, "Well, tanks, BMPs and those things."

BMPs are armored personnel carriers. The tunnel is more than two miles long.

The authenticity of the recordings could not immediately be verified.

Utiashvili said Georgia began monitoring the phones of South Ossetian militia in 2004 and had "hundreds of telephones under surveillance."

The Times said it had done its own translation of the audio files. The newspaper's translation was similar to the translation provided by Georgia, with slight differences that did not appear to change the meaning.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko dismissed the Georgian claim as "not serious." He said any major troop movements would have been easily tracked by satellites used by NATO nations.

"I would be grateful if they provide such satellite data to us and the entire global community, provide specific data," Nesterenko said sarcastically. "Allegations that they have eavesdropped on someone and heard something are simply not serious."

Saakashvili, a U.S. ally who is seeking NATO membership for Georgia, said his government has asked NATO nations to examine satellite imagery.

Asked why Georgia had not released the purported intercepts earlier, he said they were initially believed to have been lost "during the heat of the war" but were later found.

Georgia has provided the West with the intercepts and other information, he said, and would welcome an investigation.

In Washington, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman did not respond directly to the question of which side was in South Ossetia first.

"I don't think anything changes _ this was a hostile" move by Russia, he said. "The operative point is that Russia invaded territory of Georgia."

Saakashvili also stressed that point.

"This is our country, we didn't go to Vladikavkaz, we didn't go to Moscow, we didn't go to Siberia," he said. "They came here."

Russia had 500 peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia before the war, so the mere presence of Russian forces in the region is not damning. But Saakashvili angrily rejected Russian suggestions that the forces in the tunnel were part of a peacekeeping rotation.

"You don't send in peacekeepers late at night with tanks," he told the AP. "Tanks are not peacekeeping vehicles. You warn about peacekeepers beforehand and we had official notification from the Russians that next peacekeeping (rotation) was going to happen end of September."

The U.S., European Union and NATO have accused Russia of using disproportionate force and are demanding it withdraw its forces to pre-conflict positions in accordance with the cease-fire.

Western government acknowledge Georgia launched an offensive against the city of Tskhinvali. But they stress that Georgia was under increasing pressure amid growing Russian support for the separatist governments of South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia.

Rather than the final hours before war, "More important is to focus on what was happening over a couple of years," said the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, who was in Georgia with a NATO delegation.

He referred to economic and diplomatic moves targeting Georgia in addition to "the massing of forces in the North Caucasus" _ in Russia near the Georgian border.

"No matter how we end up parsing out those few hours in the early morning of Aug. 7, Georgia was responding to a long period of Russian pressure, including violence that was going on, with shelling from South Ossetians," Volker said. "(Georgia) made the decision to go into Tskhinvali, which was the trigger the Russians were looking for to launch this pre-planned invasion."