The New York Times published on September 15 details of evidence, which Georgia handed over to U.S. and European intelligence agencies, purporting to show that some Russian forces crossed into breakaway South Ossetia via Roki Tunnel a day before Georgia attacked Tskhinvali late on August 7.
The evidence in question, which was also handed over to the New York Times by the Georgian authorities, involves intercepted cellphone calls between a South Ossetian militiaman, supposedly a border guard, at the Roki Tunnel and his superior at headquarters in Tskhinvali.
According to a separate article run by the International Herald Tribune - part of the New York Times Company – Georgia’s eavesdropping operation was made possible because both South Ossetian militiamen were using a Georgian mobile operator, Magti.
In the first phone conversation, intercepted at 3:41am on August 7, the South Ossetian border guard at the Roki Tunnel, by the name of Gassiev, tells his supervisor in Tskhinvali that a Russian colonel had asked Ossetian guards at the tunnel to inspect military vehicles that “crowded” the tunnel. “The B.M.P.’s and other vehicles were sent here and they’ve crowded there. The guys are also standing around,” the guard at Roki Tunnel says, according to the NY Times.
In a separate conversation logged at 3:52am on August 7 the superior from Tskhinvali asks Gassiev: “Has the armor arrived or what?”
“The armor and people,” the guard replied. Asked if they had gone through, he said, “Yes, 20 minutes ago; when I called you, they had already arrived.”
The NY Times, however, says the recordings do not explicitly describe the quantity of armor or indicate that Russian forces were engaged in fighting at that time.
When asked why more than a month passed before the conversations came to light, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told the NY Times that the file with the recordings was lost during the war when the surveillance team moved operations from Tbilisi to Gori.
The NY Times says that at issue is new intelligence, “inconclusive on its own, that nonetheless paints a more complicated picture of the critical last hours before war broke out.”
Although Russia has not disputed the veracity of the phone calls, the NY Times reported, it downplayed the significance of the intercepted conversations.
Gen. Lt. Nikolai Uvarov of Russia, who served as a Defense Ministry spokesman during the war, told the NY Times that troop movements to South Ossetia before the war erupted were part of the normal rotation and replenishment of the Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia.
The NY Times, however, notes that “at a minimum, the intercepted calls, which senior American officials have reviewed and described as credible if not conclusive, suggest there were Russian military movements earlier than had previously been acknowledged, whether routine or hostile, into Georgian territory as tensions accelerated toward war.”