Kim Sengupta: First war, now anarchy as Russian militias run riot

The conflict in Georgia appeared to be evolving into a vicious new phase yesterday, with killings, burning and looting by irregular militias coming in behind Russian military columns thrusting from the breakaway province of South Ossetia deep into the country.

George Bush and the Georgian government accused Moscow of breaking the less than 24-hour-old ceasefire, as armed bands of Ossetians, Cossacks and Chechens raided villages around the strategic town of Gori which was taken over by Russian forces in the morning.

Bullet-riddled bodies were seen at three villages, Karaleti, Gavardzhavli and Variani, struck by the militias who appeared to be members of Caucasian groups fighting alongside South Ossetian separatists against Georgian government forces. There were also corpses at Dzardzanis and Kelktsuili. Some of the houses were ablaze and there was widespread evidence of looting.

Shotu Chulukhadze, who had left his home in Variani with six members of his family, said: "They shot dead Vachtang; he was my neighbour. There were four of them in a yellow private car; they stopped at the village and started insulting Vachtang and killed him. Afterwards, they took some things from his house and just drove away."

About 30 villagers from Karaleti and Gavardzhavli were in a lorry on the road to the capital, Tbilisi. Darejan Khuleidze wept as she described how her cousin was murdered. "He was shot in the back; he was just trying to get away and they killed him for nothing. We have now lost everything. We can never go back to our homes as long as those men are there."

Hundreds of terrified refugees fled towards Tbilisi, to escape the roaming gangs, some of them masked, setting fire to buildings and robbing and killing people. Many of the civilians said Russian troops had done nothing to stop the abuse by the militia fighters.

A few hours later, the Russians themselves began to move towards Tbilisi, causing fear in the city, but they halted after 18 miles. Although there was initial relief in the capital, which had been bracing itself for occupation, the manoeuvre has effectively bisected Georgia east to west, leaving Moscow in control of movement between the two regions as well as a pipeline supplying oil to western Europe.

Georgia's President, Mikheil Saak-ashvili, accused the Russians of blatantly breaching the ceasefire agreement and accused Western nations of failing his country. "I feel that they are partly to blame," he said. "Not only those who commit atrocities are responsible, but so are those who fail to react."

The day had started with a Russian column entering Gori, the biggest city across the border from South Ossetia, abandoned by the Georgian army on Monday. At first, there was relative calm inside the near-deserted city, which had come under sustained attacks from the Russians in the hours before the ceasefire. Russian troops set up checkpoints and a contingent moved to a Georgian army base and took arms and ammunition, then the building was set on fire. It was unclear whether this was done by regular Russian forces or militias.

Soon, reports began to surface about atrocities in the surrounding countryside. But people injured by the militias no longer have anywhere to go for treatment after the staff at Gori hospital were evacuated. A 28-year-old surgeon, Georgi Abramishvili, was killed in a Russian missile strike at the hospital on Tuesday, and the dean, Professor Gurami Guasalia decided it was too risky. He said: "I know there are a lot of people injured in the villages, but what can I do? I have responsibility towards my staff as well."

Russian officers were guarded about their mission. But one of them, Captain Pavl Baskarov, said: "We tried to find and talk to Georgian officials in Gori but couldn't find any." Asked about the abuse of civilians by militias, he said: "I do not know about that, but I am sure if people have committed crimes they will be punished."

Human Rights Watch reported "terrifying scenes of destruction" in ethnic Georgian villages inside South Ossetia. In the village of Nizhnie Achaveti, researchers spoke to an elderly man who said the South Ossetian militia had set his house on fire. The man said he had no food or water; his hands were burnt and hair singed from trying to extinguish the blaze. He said there were about five to 10 elderly and sick people left in the village, all in a desperate condition.

The Georgian government also accused the Russians of breaching a cease-fire agreement in the west of the country by driving out Georgian troops from the other separatist region, Abkhazia.

The global perspective

John McCain Republican presidential candidate

"I'm not saying we are reigniting the Cold War but this is an act of aggression which we didn't think we'd see in the 21st century... of course we have to deal with Russia and deal with Putin. But it has to be on a very realistic basis.

"I think it's very clear that Russian ambitions are to restore the old Russian Empire. Not the Soviet Union, but the Russian Empire... Russia no longer shares any of the values and principles of the G8, so they should be excluded."

Mikhail Gorbachev Last president of the Soviet Union

"By declaring the Caucasus – a region that is thousands of miles from the American continent – a sphere of its 'national interest', the United States made a serious blunder.

"Of course, peace in the Caucasus is in the interest of everyone. But it is simply common sense to recognise that Russia is rooted in the region by common geography and centuries of history.

"Russia is not seeking territorial expansion, but it has legitimate interests in this region."

Craig Murray Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan

"Russia's actions are illegal [but] the US andUK, who launched an equally illegal and much more devastating invasion of Iraq, are ill-placed to be outraged... A de facto Russian annexation of South Ossetia must not be permitted, unless we eventually want a war for East Ukraine.

"Nato is part of the cause of the problem, not the solution. By encircling and humiliating Russia, Nato has created the climate in Russia so favourable to Putin."