Judges at the International Criminal Court Wednesday gave its prosecutor a green light to launch a new inquiry into allegations of war crimes during a brief but bloody 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.
It will be the first probe by the world's only permanent war crimes court into accusations of abuses by Russia, and also the first by the ICC to examine conflicts outside of Africa.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had formally requested in October to be allowed to open a full investigation into the 2008 war in South Ossetia.
She told judges then that preliminary findings had found evidence of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A panel of three judges agreed with her Wednesday concluding "that there is a reasonable basis to believe that crimes within the ICC's jurisdiction have been committed in the situation in Georgia."
They therefore "authorised the prosecutor to proceed with an investigation for the crimes within the ICC jurisdiction, allegedly committed in and around South Ossetia, Georgia, between 1 July and 10 October 2008."
They said such crimes included "crimes against humanity, such as murder, forcible transfer of population and persecution, and war crimes, such as attacks against the civilian population, wilful killing."
On the night of August 7-8, 2008, Georgia's then Western-backed president Mikheil Saakashvili launched an offensive to reclaim the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
But he was caught by surprise when Moscow launched a swift counter-offensive with Russian forces sweeping into Georgia instead.
After winning the brief war, Russia officially recognised South Ossetia -- along with another breakaway Georgian region Abkhazia -- as independent states. Together the two regions comprise some 20 percent of Georgian territory.
ICC prosecutors estimate between 13,400 and 18,500 ethnic Georgians were forcibly displaced and "that the ethnic Georgian population living in the conflict zone was reduced by at least 75 percent."
The decision comes at a busy time for the ICC, with the long-awaited trial of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo due to open on Thursday.