There were fragile hopes last night that the shooting phase of the war between Russia and Georgia had come to an end as Moscow endorsed a peace plan to be brokered by the European Union.
After six days of intensive fighting, Russia's President, Dmitry Medvedev, declared that its mission had been accomplished and agreed to a ceasefire proposal tabled in Moscow by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.
The war of words rumbled on, however, with Georgia accusing Russia of continuing military operations and Moscow denouncing the Georgian President as a liar, while questioning his sanity. Mikheil Saakashvili's embattled government in Tbilisi said Russian forces had occupied and destroyed the port of Poti, killing 100 civilians, and claimed that a "massacre" of ethnic Georgians was still under way in South Ossetia.
These claims were denied in Moscow. "The aim of the operation has been achieved," said Mr Medvedev. "The aggressor has been punished and has suffered very considerable losses."
The Russians were still portraying their action as retaliation for Georgian aggression, an assertion that became harder to sustain as their jets bombed the city centre of Gori for the first time yesterday morning, killing eight people including a local doctor and a Dutch journalist.
Mr Medvedev pinned the blame for the conflict squarely at the door of the Georgian leader. He called Mr Saakashvili a "lunatic" and explained the Russian action in language that his mentor Vladimir Putin would be proud of. "The difference between lunatics and other people is that when they smell blood it is very difficult to stop them. So you have to use surgery," said Mr Medvedev. He also accused Mr Saakashvili of lying about a proposed Georgian ceasefire.
In Tbilisi, emotions were also running high as thousands gathered for a rally in support of Mr Saakashvili and government ministers made speeches promising to take back Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite the bellicose rhetoric, the Georgian army was nowhere to be seen on the road out of Tbilisi after Monday night's retreat and the few cars on the road were the stragglers in the great escape westwards, away from a Russian army that the Georgians have claimed is intent on a full invasion.
It was still unclear what was happening inside Georgia's two breakaway zones of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhaz separatists launched an attack on the Kodori Gorge, the only part of their territory in Georgian hands, with apparent Russian assistance. In South Ossetian villages formerly controlled by Georgia, the Georgian government said witnesses had reported that the ethnicity of residents was being checked by Russian troops and Russian-allied militias, and ethnic Georgians were being executed with a bullet to the head.
The claims were impossible to verify, as these villages have yet to be entered by either Western or Russian journalists, and many official statements released by the Georgian government have later proved to be false. However, the mood of Ossetian paramilitaries in Tskhinvali when The Independent entered the destroyed rebel capital on Sunday lends plausibility to the chilling reports. Several Ossetian paramilitaries said there were "no good Georgians" and promised to start an advance and kill every Georgian they came across.
Much of the fallout from the war will be determined by reliable reporting of what exactly happened in South Ossetia during the conflict. The Russians have claimed that the Georgian bombardment of Tskhinvali killed more than 2,000 civilians and destroyed the city, while the Georgians say that the majority of damage was inflicted during the Russian counter-attack. Certainly, the Ossetians interviewed in Tskhinvali laid the blame squarely at the door of Georgian troops. They accused them of shooting at civilians from sniper positions.
In the longer term, attention will be focused on how to keep the bad feeling between the two countries from spilling over into armed conflict. Georgia's ambassador to Nato, Revaz Beshidze, said the alliance's "mistake" of not offering Georgia a Membership Action Plan earlier this year had given Russia a "green light" to attack. The Nato secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said that Georgia was still on course for Nato membership.
In another sign that the clouds of war had not yet fully cleared, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said if Georgia failed to sign a legally binding treaty ruling out the use of force, Russia would be forced to take "other measures".
Victims of the conflict
Reports on the numbers killedduring the conflict have variedwildly. Human Rights Watch hasexpressed concern over "the lackof accurate information on theconflict".
Eduard Kokoity, president of South Ossetia, claimed on Friday that roughly 1,400 people had died in Tskhinvali. Russian officials put the number at over 1,500 civilians, but a researcher for Human Rights Watch called this an exaggeration.
On the Georgian side, a government source told Reuters on Sunday that 130 Georgians had been killed and 1,165 had been wounded, during Russian bombing. The Russian military claimed 15 of its peacekeepers were killed and 70 wounded.
Nearly 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in Georgia, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
Ron Redmond, UNHCR spokesman, said Russian officials in North Ossetia had told the agency 30,000 people from South Ossetia were now in Russia. Several thousand fled into Georgia, according to Georgian officials, while nearly 12,000 are estimated to have been displaced within South Ossetia. The agency were also told by officials in Gori that about 56,000 had fled because of the fighting.Reuse content