MOSCOW (Reuters) - Armed not just with guns but public relations agencies, Russia and Georgia are fighting a propaganda war to shape public opinion at home and abroad with a constant stream of disputed facts about their conflict.
Fighting erupted after Georgia attempted to retake control of South Ossetia, a small pro-Russian separatist province, on Thursday night. Russia poured tanks and troops across its southern border into Georgia to push Tbilisi’s troops back.
Both sides are employing Brussels-based public relations specialists who arranged a succession of conference calls for the international media in recent days, with senior government figures striving to put their side of the story across first.
Russia wants to convince the world of its role as an honest broker, reluctantly intervening against an out-of-control Georgian president whose forces have carried out ethnic cleansing against the Ossetian people.
Georgia in turn portrays itself as a plucky little country fighting off the resurgent Russian bear and suffering unfair Kremlin punishment on account of its drive to become a Western democracy and NATO ally.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili quickly sought to convince the world of his struggle in television interviews with global broadcasters, CNN and BBC, saying his country was “at war” with Russia and appealing for Western help.
But the spin hasn’t helped clarify the many disputed facts.
Each side has accused the other of causing heavy civilian casualties and wildly varying figures have been issued on deaths and injuries.
Georgia says it has shot down 10 Russian fighter jets in four days of fighting, but Russian top brass put the figure at two on Sunday.
The two sides even disputed whether a Georgian ceasefire was under way. Georgia said it gave Russia’s ambassador a signed note from Saakashvili ordering Georgian troops to cease fire at 5.00 a.m. (0100 GMT).
Interfax quoted Russia’s Foreign Ministry shortly after as saying it received the note but the fighting continued.
Across Russian television channels, big headlines have appeared decrying a “genocide” in South Ossetia, with images of wailing women, bombed buildings and frightened children edited together in quick succession.
In Georgia, only one television channel was operating at the start of the conflict and all .ru Russian Internet sites were briefly blocked, though they were available by Sunday evening.
Although the separatist capital of Tskhinvali was the centre of the fighting, with the town in ruins, independent reporting was impossible as journalists, photographers and cameraman took shelter underground to avoid coming under fire.
“City turns into human hell, many people still trapped under rubble” stated the banner running across the Russian state-controlled English-language TV channel Russia Today that seeks to broadcast the Kremlin line overseas.
The figures for death tolls was also disputed. South Ossetian officials claimed at least 1,400 people died in the first night of artillery shelling, but have yet to fully substantiate this claim.
The separatists also say around 30,000 refugees have fled northwards though other reports put the figure arriving in North Ossetia at just a fraction of this.
Mindful of Georgia’s importance to the West as an energy transit corridor from the oil-rich Caspian, a Georgian minister accused Moscow of attempting to bomb a key oil pipeline running across its territory.
Russia denied attacking any non-military target and independent experts pointed out that the pipeline was in any case already out of commission because of an explosion in eastern Turkey which knocked it out last Tuesday.
As the conflict widened, to take in the second Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, Georgia accused Russia of being behind a separatist-led military operation there to retake some territory from Georgia while Moscow denied any involvement.
Even at sea, the fog of war descended on Sunday. Georgia’s security council secretary Kakha Lomaia said its Black Sea port of Poti, which had been bombed by Russian jets in the early hours of Saturday, was now being blockaded by Russia’s navy.
A senior official from Russia’s military chief of staff, Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn dismissed this claim.
He insisted that only weapons shipments would be intercepted, though Georgia said wheat and fuel — not guns — had been blocked.
Editing by Michael Stott and Mary Gabriel