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Amnesty Says No Side Blameless In Russia-Georgia War

November 18, 2008
By Daisy Sindelar

It has been just over 100 days since the start of the conflict between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

But while the active warfare lasted less than a week, some 30,000 Georgian and Ossetian civilians remain homeless and subject to continued violence by local militias.

The situation remains so lawless that Georgians from the Gori district bordering South Ossetia last week -- residents of villages like Nikozi, Kvemo Khviti, and Zemo Khviti -- staged a demonstration demanding greater protection from the government.

"In our village, there's no police checkpoint at all," said one woman. "Two days ago, some 10 policemen came, but they didn't manage to ensure that the field was de-mined. We can't even salvage whatever's left from the harvest. And in this unprotected village, yesterday they even turned off the electricity. We're so scared that we run like crazy at every little noise."

The right of returnees, as well as general conduct during the war, is the focus of a new report by Amnesty International.

Entitled "Civilians In The Line Of Fire," the report is based on several research missions to the main conflict areas as well as interviews with victims and local authorities. It says "looting, shooting, explosions, and abductions" continue to imperil lives along the de facto border separating South Ossetia from Georgia proper.

'No-Go Zone'

John Dalhuisen is an Amnesty International researcher who has traveled to Georgia and South Ossetia several times since the conclusion of major fighting. He says while Ossetian and Georgian forces maintain patrols on either side of the de facto border, a "no-man's land" of about 500 to 600 meters remains between the two patrols. There, former residents enter at their own peril.

"This area still contains many homes and fields on which people's livelihoods depend. And, particularly in these areas, there's no guarantee of security at all -- in fact, it's kind of a no-go zone, particularly at night," said Dalhuisen, who last visited the region in late October. "Some, though, do travel there during the day, and I did accompany a local resident beyond the last Georgian checkpoint into this no-man's land, and was aware of the risks the individual was taking to harvest his grapes."

Some of the violence has been as recent as November 17, when two Georgian de-miners were killed in an explosion in the village of Plavi just south of the administrative border. Nine other people were injured in the blast, including a 10-year-old boy.

Amnesty is calling on Georgian, Ossetian, and Russian authorities to bring "marauding" elements under control and to allow international observers access to the entire conflict zone, including the whole of South Ossetia.

Fresh Account

Meanwhile, as the propaganda war grows louder over the conduct of the war, Dalhuisen says Amnesty is holding "all sides" responsible for the use of indiscriminate violence against civilians and general violations of humanitarian law.

The group is asking Georgia and Russia to support an inquiry by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, or IHFFC, to investigate the war's conduct and report publicly on its findings.

The IHFFC is a body established under the Geneva Conventions created specifically to look into violations of international humanitarian law on a consensual basis. As a result, Dalhuisen says it is "ideally placed" to investigate situations where each side in a conflict is accusing the other of misfeasance.

"We believe that this expert body would be a good first step in establishing the truth of what happened, as the conflict has been to a large extent characterized by exaggerated reports and concerns emanating from all sides," he says.

Neither side has responded formally to the Amnesty request. Dalhuisen says while both capitals have offered more words of cooperation than actual commitments to act, the Georgian authorities "have expressed a greater enthusiasm for international investigations into what happened."

Representatives from Russia and Georgia are due on November 19 to hold talks on the future of Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

They will also discuss general compliance with an EU-brokered cease-fire and the return of internally displaced people.

Goga Aptsiauri of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.


Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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