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US Says Georgia Erred in August Attack in South Ossetia

The U.S. State Department said Friday the Georgian attack in South Ossetia last August was a mistake, but that it did not justify Russia's large-scale intervention. The comments follow a critical newspaper assessment of the Tbilisi government's role in the crisis. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

In its most specific comments on the subject to date, the State Department says Georgian leaders made a mistake when they attacked the capital of breakaway South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, in August.

But officials here say overall culpability for the war may never be known, and the focus now should be on getting Georgia, and especially Russia, to heed ceasefire obligations, and help return the region to stability.

The comments follow a New York Times report Friday, which quoted independent military observers as saying Georgian forces indiscriminately shelled Tskhinvali in the early-morning attack August 7, endangering civilians, OSCE monitors and Russian peacekeepers.

The newspaper said the monitors' account calls into question Georgia's assertion that the attack was precisely aimed at military targets, and defensive following South Ossetian provocations and a Russian military buildup.

The Tskhinvali attack was followed by large-scale intervention by Russian forces, who routed Georgia troops and ended up holding large sections of Georgian territory beyond the disputed areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood said the Georgia attack was mistaken, but did not justify the Russian response.

He said the United States in the run-up to the war had urged both Georgia and Russia not to provoke, or be provoked, by the other side. He said the U.S. stress now is not assigning blame, but returning stability to the region.

"I think we need to get away from looking at who did what first, because, as I said, I don't think we'll ever really get to the bottom of that," said Wood. "The important thing is for us to move forward, and that's what we're trying to do, in terms of trying to reconstruct Georgia, bring about stability to the general region. And that's what we are going to focus on."

A senior official here said the Bush administration is disinclined to fix blame for the war, saying it could inflame matters and that it doesn't help, as he put it, to go back and re-fight history.

The United States has credited Moscow with adhering to cease-fire commitments to remove troops and checkpoints from Georgian territory beyond the South Ossetia and Abkhazia enclaves, though officials say Russia does not appear to have reduced troop levels in the two areas to pre-conflict numbers.

At a donors' conference for Georgia two weeks ago, the United States pledged $1 billion to support the country's economic recovery. The Brussels conference overall raised more than $4 billion in loans and grants for the Tbilisi government.