Ossetian militias 'looting Georgian villages'

Wednesday 13 August 2008 12:18

Human Rights Watch says it has witnessed South Ossetian fighters looting ethnic Georgians' houses and has recorded multiple accounts of Georgian militias intimidating ethnic Ossetians.

The report today by the respected international rights group is important independent confirmation of the claims by each side in the Russia-Georgia conflict. Both have accused the other of committing actions that could be counted as war crimes.

Meanwhile witnesses said today that Russian troops have set up at least two checkpoints on the outskirts of the Georgian town of Gori, in what Georgia said was a breach of a ceasefire.

An eyewitness said Russian troops had advanced south from South Ossetia to occupy an abandoned Georgian artillery base some two-three miles from Gori town centre, 15 miles south of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali.

A Reuters cameraman said he had seen a second Russian checkpoint on a road leading east from the town towards the Georgian capital Tbilisi. But Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of Russia's general staff, told Reuters: "No Russian troops or armour are moving towards Tbilisi."

Georgia had earlier accused Russia of sending dozens of tanks and armoured personnel carriers into the streets of Gori, the focus of Georgia's military buildup when fighting broke out last week in South Ossetia.

"As I speak now, Russian tanks are attacking Gori," President Mikheil Saakashvili told a news conference. He said Russian forces were in breach of a ceasefire announced yesterday by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The Russian military denied any incursion, saying "there are no Russian peacekeeping units or forces supporting them in Gori".

And the Russian Defence Ministry said its forces had shot down two Georgian spy drones over Tskhinvali "despite the assurances from the Georgian side that they have ended all military activities".

Georgia's deputy interior minister said that Russian troops had left Gori, but were not advancing towards Tbilisi. Ekaterine Zguladze told a news conference: "I'd like to calm everybody down. The Russian military is not advancing towards the capital."

Gori is now practically deserted, and Georgian police blocked the main highway to Gori just outside Tbilisi.

Georgia had already accused Russia yesterday of occupying Gori, but witnesses in the town at the time said there had been no Russian incursion.

Georgian forces pulled back from the town towards Tbilisi on Monday after being forced out of Tskhinvali by Russian troops following days of fighting. Moscow said yesterday it had ended military action in Georgia.

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