The capital of South Ossetia bears all the appearance of a place that has been pulverised by days of Georgian bombing and by the ferocious Russian counter-attack that followed. Smoke still rises from smouldering buildings and from the wreckage of tanks and armoured cars. Grief-stricken women amid the ruins weep at the horror visited on them, others scream their rage.
The Independent entered the rebel capital yesterday, the first Western news organisation to do so since the start of a conflict in which Russian warplanes have bombed targets across Georgia, an ally of the West. We were escorted in by South Ossetian soldiers stationed at the border with the words: "You are coming with us to Tskhinvali, you are not going back, I promise you."
What unfolded offered an intriguing, if terrifying, insight into the savage, internecine violence that has now been unleashed in Georgia.
While showing us the results of Georgian "aggression" our guides also threatened either to shoot us or take us hostage. From time to time there were echoes of mortar and machine-gun fire in the surrounding valleys, but no incoming rounds in the city.
Outside homes with blasted windows, families had gathered with what they had salvaged from their belongings, but without any clear idea of where they could find sanctuary. One woman came up to our car, weeping, her hands in supplication: "Why do this; why do this to us? We are just ordinary people. We haven't harmed anyone."
Tskhinvali has a population of 10,000, yet seemed almost deserted; there was little sign of the thousands of Russian troops who were supposed to have "liberated" the town. Instead, South Ossetian troops and militias operating without any apparent chain of command appear to be in control.
Pointing at the blackened shell of the offices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, one of our captors, Alik, shouted: "You can see, nobody wanted to help us. The UN and the Americans, they all sat there while we got bombed. It was the Russians who saved us. One more day and this whole place would no longer exist, and nor would any of us."
As we sat there, the radio crackled into life with "kill all the young people". It obviously did not mean us, but we wondered if any atrocities we being committed.
All around was the detritus of fierce combat. The Ossetian soldiers posed in front of the hulk of a Georgian tank while some of their comrades roared by atop their own tanks. In the main square, two dogs were tussling over what seemed like a piece of frayed material. "Look at that," said one of the soldiers. "That is human flesh. The Georgians had not given us time to bury our dead when they attacked."
There was no way of verifying if this was true, but this is the type of belief which is driving the conflict. The biggest mystery was the whereabouts of the Russians. "There are volunteers here from all over the Caucasus and Russia," said Alik, who appeared to be in charge. But pressed on the whereabouts of the Russian army, he snapped: "Stop asking your questions! I haven't slept for six days."
Alik then turned to the three of us squashed into the back seat of the battered Mercedes taxi he had commandeered for us. Waving his Kalashnikov rifle, and with rage and hatred in his eyes, he pointed to our Georgian driver and said, in a level voice: "He's finished."
We had driven from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, towards the front line between Georgia and South Ossetia amid reports of Russian armoured columns moving from South Ossetia into Georgia "proper", and paratroopers taking over strategic points. But there was no sign of the invading Russians.
Farther along the road we met 20 Russian peacekeepers who had witnessed Georgian tanks moving into South Ossetia early on Friday but, armed only with assault rifles, could do nothing to stop them. One of the soldiers, a Chechen, had filmed the attack on his mobile phone, which he showed us.
Two miles farther up the road were the hastily abandoned Georgian army posts. Cowering under a desk was a tiny black puppy. The Russian peacekeepers had told us that we would be meeting checkpoints manned by their comrades. What we found were South Ossetian soldiers who insisted on "escorting" us into the city.
At first the mood appeared to be hostile, but not overly aggressive. This changed on the arrival of Alik and his comrades, one of whom brandished a knife and declared that our Georgian driver was a spy.
"Look at that, the Georgians fired the ammunition but it was provided by the British and the Americans," a soldier said. "They are the hidden people behind the Georgians."
Our tense tour of Tskhinvali ended with a chilling debate among the soldiers. Alik announced that the reporters were free to go but our driver would be kept. "He may be a good man as you say, but the Georgians are holding many of our good people." After further debate the soldiers decided to free all three of us. As we left we saw Georgian tank units marshalled on the road.
Yesterday evening, people were fleeing the Georgian town of Gori after fresh reports of an approaching Russian force. The next chapter of this bitter struggle between former neighbours was about to begin.
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