Numbers Cast Doubt On Genocide Claims

ReutersCoffins containing bodies of Georgian soldiers lying on the ground before their burial near Tskhinvali on Saturday.
Days after the fighting ended in South Ossetia, a huge question mark is hanging over the number of civilians who actually died.

South Ossetian and Moscow officials put the number of Ossetian civilian casualties from 1,600 to more than 2,100.

Some human rights activists on the ground said, however, that they were struggling to find even 100 slain Ossetians, while other experts said it remained too early to compile an accurate count.

In any case, it is looking increasingly unlikely that the death toll will be anywhere close to the numbers needed to support Moscow's claim that Tbilisi had committed genocide.

President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin both accused the Georgian military of committing "genocide" when it invaded South Ossetia on Aug. 8 in an attempt to regain control over the pro-Moscow republic. Medvedev has also ordered the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General's Office to open an investigation that could lead to genocide charges being filed against the Georgian leadership.

South Ossetia's top police official, Mikhail Mindzayev, told reporters Saturday that the number of civilian casualties was over 2,100, Interfax reported.

Separatist leaders had previously put the figure at 1,600, and Russian officials have cited the 1,600 figure for the past week. Most recently, Federation Council Deputy Speaker Alexander Torshin said Friday that 1,600 Ossetian civilians had perished under Georgian fire.

On the second day of the conflict, Aug. 9, Russia's ambassador to Georgia, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, declared that more than 2,000 Ossetian civilians had died.

The Investigative Committee, which has opened a case into suspected genocide as well as murder, said Thursday that it had so far uncovered "more than 60 bodies of Russian citizens of Ossetian ethnicity," Interfax reported. Most residents of South Ossetia carry Russian passports.

Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin told reporters in the North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz, on Friday that investigators have examined 29 bodies retrieved from South Ossetia. A team of 150 investigators are looking for evidence of genocide in South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, and the surrounding area, he said.

Markin urged the reporters to share any evidence of "Georgian aggression" they might have with the investigators.

A fact-finding mission for Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based rights watchdog, has only been able to find about 60 bodies.

The head of the group's Moscow bureau, Anna Neistat, said by telephone from Tskhinvali on Friday that the Tskhinvali hospital was storing 44 bodies of people killed in the city, including civilians and soldiers. "We believe that the figure of 44 is not exhaustive," she said, adding that she has heard of "at least a few other people dead in the city."

Neistat said she visited the village of Khetagurovo, outside Tskhinvali, on Thursday and villagers told her of 15 people killed there, both civilians and soldiers.

She said expected the death toll to grow when the dead are counted in other villages near Tskhinvali, which experienced the brunt of the fighting.

But Neistat has not found evidence of a high civilian death toll. "The range of numbers we are getting is dozens of civilians rather than thousands," she said.

The Tskhinvali hospital has reported taking in 273 civilians and soldiers injured in the city and the surrounding region, Neistat said.

The number of civilian injuries in a conflict is usually three to four times higher than the number of those killed, she said. "If the Russian authorities are talking about 1,600 people killed, we must be talking about some 6,000 wounded, and so far we haven't seen anything close to that," she said.

In the meantime, a federal crisis center set up to deal with the conflict said 519 injured South Ossetian civilians had sought medical assistance in North Ossetia as of Friday morning, while another 360 had turned to doctors in South Ossetia, Itar-Tass reported.

The head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, Alexander Brod, who visited South Ossetia on Friday as a member of a team with the Public Chamber, said the official Moscow body count of about 1,600 looked credible.

"I saw there that a lot of people killed during the first two days of fighting were buried on the spot, right in their own yards, because the intense fire did not allow other options," he said.

Also, the very strong odor of decomposing bodies is hanging over Tskhinvali's demolished buildings, he said.

"There will be significantly more dead after the rubble is removed," he said.

The civilian body count in an intense five-day battle like the one witnessed in South Ossetia could easily amount to hundreds and even thousands, said Yevgeny Satanovsky, a security analyst and president of the Institute of Middle East Studies.

Usually, civilian casualties in urban conflicts are several times higher than the body count of combatants, he said.

Russia's Defense Ministry says 74 servicemen were killed in action and 19 were missing. Georgia's Health Ministry says 112 troops were killed, excluding those left behind in South Ossetia. Russian officials said Friday that 50 dead Georgian servicemen had been retrieved in South Ossetia.

So far, the relatively low death toll of Ossetian civilians and the lack of evidence that they were killed in a systemic, premeditated way precludes Russian officials from qualifying the events in South Ossetia as genocide, said Ilya Altman, chair of the Holocaust and Genocide department at Maimonid University in Moscow.

"This was a political decision and has nothing to do with the judicial science," Altman said.

Staff Writer Anna Malpas contributed to the report.