Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

The Conflict In Georgia: Russian Troops Still Pour Into South Ossetia --- Scarred Area Vents Anger at Georgia; Death Toll Unclear

The Wall Street Journal, 13th August 2008 11:43

By Andrew Osbornand Marc Champion

TSKHINVALI, Georgia -- The Kremlin said Tuesday that it was suspending military action in the separatist enclave of South Ossetia inside Georgia, but huge Russian military convoys still snaked toward the scarred capital, Tskhinvali.

After five days of fighting -- Russia's biggest use of force outside its borders since the 1991 Soviet collapse -- a victorious Russian army offered a small group of foreign journalists a carefully controlled glimpse of the territory it went to war over.

Their goal was to win a more difficult battle: getting the world to believe that Georgia, not Moscow, is to blame for the mayhem. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has accused Georgians of "genocide," and Russia has asserted that Tskhinvali was essentially leveled in a Georgian attack last Thursday.

Parts of the city were in ruins, although it wasn't clear whether the Georgian attack or the Russian response was to blame. The pillars of a culture center had been broken into pieces like children's toys. Apartment blocks and shops were riddled with bullet holes and shell impacts.

"Look at what they [the Georgians] did," said Taimraz Pliev, 62 years old. "It's Stalingrad." Mr. Pliev said he and his family spent five nights in their cellar while a battle raged above ground. "Who will compensate for all this?" he asked, his eyes glassy with emotion.

Neighborhoods farther off the official tour seemed to have sustained much less damage, with most buildings intact. The tour provided little evidence to support Russian claims that over 1,000 civilians in South Ossetia perished from Georgian bombs and bullets. Doctors at the main hospital in Tskhinvali said around 220 people were brought in for treatment, but they gave no clear answer to repeated questions about the death toll.

Georgia denies the genocide claim and accuses Moscow of ethnic cleansing.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said it would be up to the people of South Ossetia and the pro-Russian republic of Abkhazia to the west to decide their future. Both regions lie within Georgia's internationally recognized borders.

Despite Georgian reports of breaches, the cease-fire announced by Mr. Medvedev Tuesday appeared largely to hold. A fierce, apparently punitive bombardment of the Georgian city of Gori, abandoned Monday night by Georgian forces in retreat, ended shortly before Mr. Medvedev announced the cease-fire. Five people including a journalist were killed by shelling in the main Stalin Square, witnesses said. The square's monument to former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, whose hometown was Gori, went undamaged.

"The whole situation has changed," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Politics, a journal that frequently publishes the work of Russian government officials. "Russia is ready to use force outside of its borders. I think [former Soviet countries] will re-evaluate how to most optimally protect their security in the wider sense, not just militarily but also politically and economically."

In Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, Russian soldiers atop armored personnel carriers and tanks smiled and waved triumphantly as they patrolled the streets, causing traffic jams.

The traffic on South Ossetia's roads Tuesday suggested the Russian army isn't planning to leave anytime soon. The sole two-lane road that snakes from Russia through plunging mountain passes was clogged with military hardware. Heavy battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, supply trucks and howitzers rumbled toward the capital. Helicopter gunships flew overhead in the same direction.

In the opposite direction, minibuses ferrying refugees motored toward the Russian border. At one hillside cemetery, a funeral was taking place. Men in camouflage and women clad in black looked on as an open coffin was unloaded from a truck.

Tskhinvali is a town with an official population of 30,000 and long dusty roads, low-rise apartment blocks and many individual detached houses with large yards.

The first stop on the Kremlin tour was a busy road junction on the edge of town. The charred remains of two Georgian T-72 tanks lay beached there.

A handful of civilians left in the area emerged to tell their stories.

Alla Begayeva, a mother of three, was one of many South Ossetians who said she was grateful to Russian forces. "If Russia hadn't come, the Georgians would have slit our throats like pigs," she said.She said she hoped South Ossetia would soon become part of Russia proper.

Russian officials said nearly half the region's roughly 70,000 people have fled across the border into Russia itself.

The pale facade of Tskhinvali's hospital was pocked with bullet holes. Doctors led the way to a dark fetid basement where they said they had been forced to operate on patients as fighting continued outside.

Staff said Georgian forces had struck the hospital with a missile. The point at which the missile entered the hospital wasn't visible. A Russian officer said that was because it had come in through the roof.

Standing on the front porch cradling three shards of shrapnel she said had been removed from patients, a doctor at the hospital, Tina Zakharova, railed against Georgia and its president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

"This is the kind of humanitarian aid Georgia has sent us," she said, her voice rising with anger. "How can you fire a Grad missile at a hospital?"

A short drive away an entire neighborhood had been flattened by a squall of missiles. In many cases only fragments of facades had been left standing.

An elderly man, Nodar Tskhovrebov, stared at what was left of his house. Nothing remained but the walls. "What am I going to do?" he said, poking the remains of the missile with his shoe. In other places, overturned cars blackened by fire still lay in the road. The main government building was wrecked. People said they had no water or electricity.

Russian Col. Igor Konashenko said 500 bodies had been pulled from the area the previous day. The streets had been littered with corpses and some civilians had been shot in the back of the head, he said. As armored personnel carriers whisked the tour's participants back to Russia proper, they passed large houses in flames on both sides of the road.

Georgia's capital of Tbilisi had none of the destruction of South Ossetia, and none of the joy of victory.

At lunchtime, the Swarovski, Boss and other swank stores along the city's main Rustaveli Avenue -- and the 24-hour McDonald's -- were closed. People in Tbilisi had been emptying supermarket shelves and filling gasoline tanks to prepare for what the Georgian government believed was an imminent Russian attack on the capital. Refugees from bombed or occupied Georgian towns such as Gori and Zugdidi milled about on the otherwise empty sidewalks.

Within an hour of Mr. Medvedev's cease-fire announcement, many of the stores were open again, and McDonald's was bustling. Tens of thousands of people poured onto Rustaveli Avenue waving white and red Georgian flags for a subdued show of unity, and relief. "This is no celebration," said Lasha Jugheli, a 28-year-old Georgian who works for a nonprofit organization, as he headed into the crowd.

Disappointment at the West left many bitter. Already, some Georgians have begun to question whether Mr. Saakashvili made a strategic blunder that has cost the country substantial pieces of its territory. "We waited and waited for the U.S. and Europe to help, but it was just words, words," said Lali Chavchanidze, her hands trembling. "I haven't eaten in a week, just smoked," she explained.

Tuesday's six-point peace plan requires both sides not to use force and to provide humanitarian access. Both have to pull their troops out of the conflict zones, but Russia is allowed to keep a larger force of peacekeepers than before the conflict until a new international force is established. Talks are to open on the separatist territories.

Mr. Medvedev drove the Russian military victory home.

"Thugs differ from normal people in that once they scent blood, it's very hard to stop them," the Kremlin leader said at a news conference, referring to Georgian authorities. "Sometimes surgical methods have to be used."