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Key question lingers: Who started the war in Georgia?

As EU monitors arrive, new details contradict Russia's assertion that Georgia invaded South Ossetia first.

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The Russian Army inserted special troops into Abkhazia to repair the railroad lines, and in late July, the Vladikavkaz-based 58th Army began staging war games near the border with South Ossetia. "Those exercises were actually the final deployment of troops for the invasion," which began a week later, he says.

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Russian officials say the Army exercises were routine, and that any longer-term preparations were due to an awareness that Georgian forces – who were also holding war games in July – were possibly preparing an attack.

"Those exercises take place two or three times a year," says Stanislav Kesayev, vice speaker of the Russian republic of North Ossetia's parliament. "It was well known that Saakashvili, who was desperate to show Georgia's readiness to join NATO, was getting ready to do something reckless," he adds.

Georgian experts say Russia's South Ossetian allies began a campaign of "provocations," including shelling Georgian villages and attacking Georgian police, in the days before the war began. "It was clearly Russia that wanted the war, and it made every effort to entrap Georgia through provocations," says Mr. Gegashidze.

However, most of the incidents cited by Georgian experts are matched by alleged "Georgian provocations," including assassinations and kidnappings of South Ossetian officials, detailed in Klimov's timeline.

Evacuations before the assault

South Ossetian officials admit that they evacuated much of their own civilian population from Tskhinvali in the days before the war began. Despite Russian claims of "genocide" by Georgian forces, human rights organizations have subsequently been able to document no more than 137 dead South Ossetians, most of whom appear to have been combatants.

"The war may have surprised the world, but we all knew it was coming," says Stanislav Dzheioyev, a South Ossetian official. "We could see the Georgian Army on the move, so we got our families out of Tskhinvali."

An investigation by the independent Russian human rights movement, Memorial, released last week suggests that the same thing happened in South Ossetia's Georgian-populated villages in the days preceding hostilities. "The villagers had all been warned by the pro-Georgian leaders to leave, and promised a swift return after it was all over," says Alexander Cherkasov, a Memorial activist.

Last week, standing near the fire-blackened shell remains of the huge, colonnaded parliament building that dominates Tskhinvali's central square, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity said the world can debate these questions as much as it likes, but he's only interested in rebuilding.

"We tried to achieve independence peacefully, but our neighbor didn't want it," he says. "Now we have won it, and it's something that's worth living and working for."

Tomorrow: Will North and South Ossetia be unified?

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