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Georgia claimed Russia had bombed airfields and civil and economic infrastructure, including the Black Sea port of Poti. Between eight and eleven Russian jets reportedly hit container tanks and a shipbuilding plant at the port. Reuters reported an attack on the civilian Tbilisi International Airport, though Russia claimed otherwise. Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili also denied this, reportedly stating, « There was no attack on the airport in Tbilisi. It was a factory that produces combat airplanes. »
According to Russia, about 20% of the Tskhinvali’s buildings have suffered various damage, including 10% of « beyond repair ». Russia’s military claimed the retreating Georgian forces have mined civilian infrastructure in South Ossetia.
According to an 18 August report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), at the start of the military conflict on 7 August 2008, Georgian military used indiscriminate and disproportionate force resulting in civilian deaths in South Ossetia. The Russian military has since used indiscriminate force in attacks in South Ossetia and in the Gori district, and has apparently targeted convoys of civilians attempting to flee the conflict zones. HRW said that ongoing looting, arson attacks, and abductions by militia are terrorizing the civilian population, forcing them to flee their homes and preventing displaced people from returning home.
The organization called the conflict a disaster for civilians, and said an international security mission should be deployed to help protect civilians and create a safe environment for the displaced to return home. HRW also called for international organizations to send fact-finding missions to establish the facts, report on human rights, and urge the authorities to account for any crimes.
On 8 August the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) urged the combatants to make a humanitarian corridor to evacuate the wounded and civilians from Tskhinvali. The fighting interrupted electricity and telephone service in Tskhinvali, and some inhabitants sheltered in basements with no access to water or medicines. Russian media reported on 9 August that several journalists were hiding in the basements, as they appealed to world society for a peace corridor to let them out of Tskhinvali. On 10 August the Russian Ambassador in Tbilisi claimed that « at least 2,000 » people had been killed, and the chief of Russian ground forces said that the Georgian shelling has destroyed « all the hospitals » in Tskhinvali. However, it turned out that the city hospital, which was hit in the roof by a single Grad rocket, did not collapse at all; the rocket damaged part of the second and third floors. Hospital, whose outer walls were also hit by either small arms fire or shrapnel, continued to operate in the building’s basement until 13 August, when all the patients were evacuated to Russia.
According to western media who arrived in the city and were toured by the Russian military on 12 August, « [s]everal residential areas seemed to have little damage », while the heaviest hit appeared to be buildings in and near the government district. Despite the early claims that « the city was burnt to the ground, leveled. (…) like Stalingrad« , on 17 August Russia reported that 20% of some 7,000 buildings in Tskhinvali suffered any damage, with 1/10 of buildings being beyond repair.
From 8 to 13 August, the Tskhinvali hospital treated 273 wounded, both military and civilians. Fourty-four bodies had been brought to the hospital; these represented the majority of Ossetians killed in Tskhinvali, because the city morgue was not functioning due to the lack of electricity. On 14 August South Ossetian officials claimed they have identified 200 corpses of South Ossetian civilians, saying that 500 are missing; at the same time, Russian investigators said they had identified a total of 60 civilians killed during the fighting. By 18 August, following an investigation in South Ossetia and amongst refugees, the number of dead civilians identified was put by Russia at 133; nevertheless, South Ossetian officials said 1,492 people died.
The UN refugee agency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that thousands of refugees left South Ossetia, mostly for North Ossetia-Alania in Russia within the first days of the conflict. On 10 August, HRW obtained official figures on the number of displaced persons tallied by the Russian government agency in Vladikavkaz, according to which, the Federal Migration Service registered 24,032 persons who crossed the border from South Ossetia into Russia. However, 11,190 of those went back after the Russian intervention in the war; the government stated that “the overall number [of the displaced] was decreasing because of the people who return to join to volunteer militias of South Ossetia”; furthermore, the figures cannot be considered accurate, as many people cross the border back and forth and thus get registered two or more times. On 15 August the UNHCR, relying on figures provided by Georgian and Russian officials, said at least 30,000 South Ossetians have fled across the border into North Ossetia. On 16 August Russia put this number at over 10,000 refugees, indicating that majority has already returned.
HRW entered the mostly deserted Tskhinvali on 13 August and reported that it saw numerous apartment buildings and houses damaged by shelling. It said some of them had been hit by « inherently indiscriminate » weapons that should not be used in areas populated by civilians, such as rockets most likely fired from BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers. Since Georgian and Russian forces use identical Soviet-era weapons systems including Grad rockets, HRW couldn’t definitely attribute specific battle damage to a particular belligerent, but witness accounts and the timing of the damage would point to Georgian fire accounting for much of the damage. In Tskhinvali, HRW saw numerous severely damaged civilian objects, including a hospital, apartment buildings, houses, schools, kindergartens, shops, administrative buildings, and the university. However, the group also noted that Ossetian militias in some neighborhoods took up defensive positions inside civilian apartment buildings, which drew fire from Georgian forces.
On 18 August South Ossetians alleged that they « estimate 500 Ossetian civilians were kidnapped and taken away by Georgian forces from the south of Tskhinvali ». Georgian government answered: « They want to exchange [Georgian hostages] for our hostages. The problem is we don’t have any hostages so we can’t do any exchange. » By 20 August the South Ossetian estimate was scaled down to some 170 « peaceful citiziens » allegedly held by Georgia.
Most refugees in the conflict are ethnic Georgians. Before the war started, one estimate of the population of Georgians living in South Ossetia was 18,000 people, or one quarter of the population of the break-away republic. On 15 August UNHCR said that up to 15,000 ethnic Georgians have fled into the other parts of Georgia from South Ossetia. In addition, as of 15 August, some 73,000 people were displaced in Georgia proper (most of them from the city Gori); many also fled from Abkhazia. Most had no possessions with them, save for the clothes they were wearing when they fled, and were crammed into makeshift centres without even basic amenities. By 19 August the UNHCR figure of the displaced persons rose to 158,000, the vast majority of them ethnic Georgians.
Between 9 and 12 August, residential districts and a media center in the Georgian city of Gori were attacked by Russian Air Force, including by cluster bombs on 12 August, killing and injuring numerous civilians (including several journalists, among them the Dutch cameraman Stan Storimans who died). On 15 August HRW said it had collected evidence of Russian warplanes using cluster bombs; the international rights group urged Russia to stop using the weapons, which 107 nations have agreed to outlaw. Civilians continued to be killed and injured later due to contact with unexploded cluster munitions. On the same day, Russian General Nogovitsyn claimed: « We never use cluster bombs. There is no need to do so. » During the final strikes, an air-to-ground missile smashed into the Gori hospital with deadly effect.
On 10 August Georgia charged that ethnic cleansing of Georgians was occurring behind Russian lines. On 12 August HRW researchers in South Ossetia claimed that they witnessed at least four ethnic Georgian villages still burning from fires set by South Ossetian militias and witnessed looting by the militias. A HRW researcher said that « the remaining residents of these destroyed ethnic Georgian villages are facing desperate conditions, with no means of survival, no help, no protection, and nowhere to go. » On 13 August an interviewed South Ossetian officer said that the separatist forces « burned these houses (…) to make sure that they [the Georgians] can’t come back. » HRW also learned from an Ossetian officer about the summary execution of a Georgian combatant, and that the looters, who were « everywhere » in the Georgian villages in South Ossetia, have been « now moving to Gori ».
On 12 August Associated Press (AP, U.S. source) journalists toured by the Russian military through Tskhinvali claimed that they witnessed numerous fires in what appeared to be deserted ethnic Georgian neighborhoods and saw evidence of looting in those areas; they said that while a Russian army officer touring claimed said some of the buildings had been burning for days from the fighting, in fact none of the houses was burning before more than 24 hours after the battle for the city was over. By14 August, already after the official ceasefire, many international media outlets reported Georgian government and refugee stories that Ossetian and often also other pro-Russian irregulars (including reports of Cossack and Chechen paramilitaries, and even some Russian regular soldiers) were looting and burning Georgian villages in South Ossetia and near Gori. Some of the emerging stories featured reports of atrocities, including kidnapping, rape and indiscriminate murder. These reports could not be independently confirmed; as BBC News summed it up on 14 August, « The testimonies of those who have fled villages around South Ossetia are consistent, but with all roads blocked and the Russian military now in charge of the area, the scale of alleged reprisal killings and lootings is difficult to verify. » The new waves of Georgian refugees bringing reports of the widespread pillage and « revenge » killings in the territories occupied by the Russian forces kept coming over the next days.
On 13 August Russian interior minister Rashid Nurgaliev said there would be « decisive and tough » measures taken against looters; according to Russia’s Interfax, two looters were executed by firing squad in South Ossetia. Nevertheless, on 15 August, The Daily Telegraph reporter witnessed South Ossetian irregulars continuing to loot and pillage around Gori, often with the encouragement of Russian troops, including a Russian officer shouting to « take whatever you want. » Vehicles were even carjacked from the UN aid officials by paramiliaries while Russian soldiers watched. According to HRW, Russian military had indeed blocked the road from Java to Tskhinvali in an effort to prevent further attacks there, and by 14 August, researchers saw no more fires in this area; however, looting and burning of Georgian villages has continued in ethnic Georgian villages in Georgia’s Gori district. On August 13, Major General Vyacheslav Borisov, the Russian commander in Georgia, was quoted as saying that « now Ossetians are running around and killing poor Georgians in their enclaves. » Also on 15 August, the Russia-allied president Eduard Kokoity of South Ossetia, in the interview for Kommersant, officially acknowledged that the alleged ethnic cleansing of South Ossetia was in fact committed against ethnic Georgians, saying that his forces « offered them a corridor and gave the peaceful population the chance to leave » and that the Ossetians « do not intend to allow » their return.
Russian (Novaya Gazeta) and British (The Sunday Times) journalists embedded with the Russian and Ossetian forces reported that irregulars are abusing and executing captured Georgian soldiers and suspected combatants captured during the « mopping-up operations » in South Ossetia and beyond.
On 16 August an AP (American news agency) reporter witnessed groups of Georgian forced laborers in Tskhinvali under armed guard of Ossetians and Russians; South Ossetia’s interior minister Mikhail Mindzayev acknowledged this, saying that the Georgians « are cleaning up after themselves. » The Independent reported that around 40 Georgian civilian captives, mostly elderly men, were « paraded » through the city and abused by South Ossetians. On 18 August South Ossetian leaders put the number of the hostages at more than 130, roughly half of them women and mostly former Georgian guest workers. The kidnapping of civilians by warring parties is a war crime according to the Article 3 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
On 17 August HRW appealed to Russian authorities to « immediately take steps to end Ossetian militia attacks on ethnic Georgians » in the Gori district of Georgia and for the Russian military to ensure safe passage for civilians wishing to leave the region and for humanitarian aid agencies to enter. The organization said hundreds of vulnerable civilians still in the area, including many elderly; they said they are afraid to leave after learning about militia attacks on those who fled. The UN, which has described the humanitarian situation in the Russian military-controlled Gori as « desperate, » has been able to deliver only limited food supplies to the city.
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