Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

Russian Army Denies Civilian Attacks

Despite the occasional crack and pop of small arms fire, a quiet of sorts has finally descended on Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. On Thursday, bodies still lay in the streets as a small-scale cleanup of the destruction began.

Yet while the danger has receded, the Russian military has clamped down on coverage of the conflict by American reporters and photographers, making it impossible to verify reports from the organization Human Rights Watch that ethnic Georgian villages just outside of Tskhinvali were being systematically burned and looted.

The Russian army has refused responsibility for any attacks or other actions carried out by South Ossetian irregulars on Georgian property and populace, which Human Rights Watch said could be characterized as war crimes.

Control of the situation "is a question for the South Ossetian government. We are here supporting the South Ossetian side. We aren't here to secure the city," said Lieut. Colonel Andrey Bobrun. "The army does not carry out police functions. We are a military army."

On a heavily managed media tour into Tskhinvali on Thursday, the army forced photographers to stay inside locked armored personnel carriers. Yet on Tuesday, before Human Rights Watch issued its report, it allowed photographers to stand with their torsos outside the vehicle to see burning buildings and irregular fighters carting away home appliances. On the ride out of the city on Thursday, commanders allowed a Russian TV reporter to sit outside the vehicle — even while they claimed to fear snipers — while they pushed me roughly back into the vehicle when I tried to stick my head out.

Throughout the city on Tuesday, glittering piles of broken glass mixed with masonry were heaped in streets lined with gutted houses. Where fierce battles were fought, holes as big around as a man have been blasted into walls — black scorch marks and the almost geometric pattern of flying shrapnel ringing the holes.

Residents of a Soviet-era apartment block near the scene of a tank battle had gathered in the courtyard to watch on generator-powered TVs news reports of South Ossetian politicians decrying the genocide they claimed Georgian forces had carried out against their people. The residents sat and wrote out accounts of the attack, which one woman said would be sent to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

"We are filling out these forms so that people know there was a genocide here," she said. "We are writing so that people know exactly what happened here." She said about 100 people in the courtyard had already given their accounts of the Georgian attack on their neighborhood.

Signs of the fighting are everywhere in this city smashed by two armies. At the destroyed hilltop fortress outpost of Russian peacekeepers who were based here before the war, the mutilated corpses of two Georgian soldiers lay bloated in the street. Both were stripped to their underwear. One lay on his back, with a stick propped between his shoulder and neck, a white plastic bag containing papers tied to the top. The second corpse had no arms or legs and looked as if it had been burnt.

As the press tour returned from the outpost that had been destroyed and overrun by attacking Georgian tanks on the first day, four local residents had slung the body into a light blue medical cloth and were trying to get it into a yellow coffin. Neighbors stood out in the street, most holding their clothes over their faces because of the smell. Two or three times on the ride back out of the city, that same stench could be smelled.

Though Russian and Ossetian sources have claimed that between 1,500 and 2,000 died in fighting in and around Tskhinvali, officials at the city's main hospital said only 45 people had died in that facility since fighting had begun, while another three had died a field hospital in the courtyard outside.

Anti-American sentiment is running high in both North and South Ossetia, especially among unpredictable and sometimes drunk irregulars. Asked why special restrictions seemed to apply to the movements of American journalists, a Kremlin spokesman said the Russian army could not guarantee their safety.