Report states that Georgian civilians were attacked from Georgian side of Abkhaz border

The United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) has published a report on an incident which occurred at Khurcha, near the border with Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, during the recent parliamentary election campaign.

As a result of reports that the official version of what happened during this incident may have been untrustworthy, an investigation was called for, which largely contradicts the claims made by the Georgian authorities and confirms contrary claims made by election observers, outlined in the election report published by HRIDC.

On the day of the parliamentary elections, May 21, it was reported that two buses carrying ethnic Georgians were blown up by forces operating from the Abkhaz side of the de facto border. TV stations produced footage of the attack and President Saakashvili later visited injured passengers in hospital, also with TV cameras present. The buses were carrying people from Gali to Zugdidi to vote, it was reported.

The UN report, however, states that the passengers did not ask to go and vote but were "requested to gather" at the football field and wait for the bus.

After a heavy burst of small arms fire, the buses were hit by rocket-propelled grenades.

Though Georgia has claimed the attack was the work of Abkhaz separatists, UNOMIG has found that the grenades were fired from the Georgian side of the ceasefire line, from about 100 metres away from the buses.

The report also notes that the presence of TV crew at the football field by prior invitation suggests that the attack was anticipated by whoever sent the TV crews there.

Three people were hospitalized by the attack and one seriously injured, and UNOMIG will continue with its investigation due to the "inconsistencies" between the official version of events and its own findings.

Other investigators have also drawn similar conclusions about the incident, again at variance with the version offered by the Georgian government.

The Reporter studio in Tbilisi, which recently aired a documentary on the incident in Tbilisi cinemas, has stated directly that it believes the attack on the buses and voters was pre-arranged by the Georgian side.

Reporter has examined the complete TV footage, including elements not broadcast in reports, and this shows that the cameraman who recorded the grenades hitting the buses had already erected his tripod in the ideal position to record this and was filming the empty bus when the grenades hit, clearly anticipating this would happen.

Reporter also interviewed local residents who claimed that two unknown men had told people to follow them as "people were needed for a video shoot", with no mention of voting.

The HRIDC election report made similar allegations. Writing two days after the event, Norwegian Helsinki Committee representatives Ivar Dale and Aage Borchgrevink, who were acting as election observers, stated that although the buses did travel from the Abkhaz side of the border carrying voters, they did not go to the polling station, although it is implied this would have been just as easy to do as driving to the soccer field.

The TV crews were already there. Following gunfire and the grenade attack of the buses, Georgian soldiers and security personnel started firing heavily towards the Abkhaz side of the border.

As Khurcha lies within the demilitarized zone, there are no Georgian military stationed there, and the nearest base is around 15 minutes drive away along very bad roads, meaning that it would have been impossible for the Georgian military to react to the sound of gunfire or exploding grenades as rapidly as they did without prior knowledge of the incident.

The HRIDC observers concur that the grenades were fired from about 100 metres from the buses on the Georgian side of the line, having been able to trace the flight path of a grenade which missed the buses.

Having consulted a weapons expert, they believe that they were probably fired by an under-slung grenade launcher, a very short range weapon unlikely to reach the buses if fired from the Abkhaz side of the border, which requires specialist training to use effectively, training which is rarely available to anyone other than military and security personnel.

As stated in the Reporter documentary, local residents who witnessed the incident say that the initial gun and grenade fire came from the Georgian side, and questioned the prior presence of TV crews at the soccer field and the fact that no one knew who had organized the bussing.

HRIDC claims that the voters involved were not from Gali but locals, gathered for the purpose. All parties concur that those responsible for the voters being in that place at that time were not known or identifiable election officials.

The authorities have not explained however why the Abkhaz waited until the bus was in Georgian-held territory before attacking it, as it was crossing from their side of the line.

According to Tbilisi the Abkhaz were seeking to restrict the movement of voters, but the UNOMIG report contradicts this assertion, and maintains that buses carrying voters passed freely into Georgian-held territory throughout the voting period. The Abkhaz side has denied involvement in the incident.

[T]here are likely to be further developments in this story.

It is not known whether the Georgian side has carried out any investigation, and to date no one has been charged with firing bullets and grenades at buses filled with civilians.

According to Ivar Dale and Aage Borchgrevink, "If indeed staged by Georgian authorities themselves, the incident is a disturbing example of cynicism, playing on the tragedy that befell the victims of the Abkhaz conflict, risking the lives and health of innocent civilians for political gain."

[Source: Georgian Times, Tbilisi, 04Aug08]

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