Sunday, August 24, 2008
By Jonathan Finer
RUSTAVI, Georgia, Aug. 23 -- Georgian civilians captured and recently freed by Russian and South Ossetian forces on Saturday described beatings, forced labor and miserable living conditions in prison.
Georgian officials said that 79 Georgian civilians have been released over the past few days but that at least 75 civilians, almost all of them young men, remain in captivity in Tskhinvali, capital of the separatist territory of South Ossetia.
The former prisoners, half a dozen of whom were interviewed at a school serving as temporary housing in this industrial city, said they were seized from their homes or as they fled advancing Russian and South Ossetian forces. Some said they were held for as many as 12 days at a jail in Tskhinvali.
The detainees, many of them elderly fruit farmers from villages along Georgia's northern border, said male inmates were forced to clean streets and bury the war dead, and occasionally endured beatings that left them with bruises and welts. More than 100 men and women were packed into a cell with a single toilet, they said.
"I thought they would kill us. I was very much afraid," said Manuna Gogidze, 48.
Gogidze said she and 15 others were forced out of her neighbor's cellar on Aug. 8 and lined up against a wall. A South Ossetian militiaman was pointing a cocked rifle at them when another fighter intervened, she said. They were then loaded into a truck and taken north.
The inmates' stories could not be independently verified, though people interviewed separately gave consistent accounts. South Ossetian and Russian officials have in the past denied abusing Georgian detainees. A Kremlinspokesman, who would not give his name, said only that prisoners held by the South Ossetians were treated according to "acceptable standards." A spokesman for the South Ossetian government could not be reached for comment.
The conflict began Aug. 7 when Georgian forces invaded disputed South Ossetia and Russian forces swiftly pushed them back, seizing as much as a third of Georgian land. Despite Russia's withdrawal Friday from broad swaths of Georgian territory, major issues remain, such as the continued presence of Russian forces in Georgia, the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- another section of Georgia seeking independence -- and the return of prisoners captured during the war.
Saturday also brought renewed warnings of further military conflict, as Georgian soldiers, ordered to bases outside the combat zone after being forced from South Ossetia by Russian forces two weeks ago, returned to the frontline Georgian city of Gori, which the Russians abandoned a day earlier.
With Russian troops stationed just a few miles north, it was the closest the two armed forces had come to each other since a cease-fire was reached more than a week ago.
"Georgian units are concentrated in the central part of the republic and are preparing for further actions," Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the Russian general staff, said at a Saturday briefing. "Georgian special forces are setting up arms caches, in order, among other things, to carry out provocations on the territory of South Ossetia and neighboring districts."
Georgian officials denied any desire for further fighting. 'This is a false accusation trying to smoke-screen their military presence," said Alexander Lomaia, head of Georgia's National Security Council. "I categorically deny any regrouping of our troops."
Georgian forces returning to Gori found two of their large bases crumbled by the Russians, who detonated explosives as they left the city Friday evening. The Georgians deactivated mines planted against the support columns of a third large base. Still, the facility was ransacked and burned. Everything of value had been destroyed or stolen.
"They are pigs. They live in the Stone Age," Gen. Zaza Gogava, the Georgian army's chief of staff, said of the Russians. "Eighty percent of everything we had here is gone. But if we need to, we can still fight."
Russian troops continued to man checkpoints Saturday along the main road leading north from Gori to Tskhinvali, in violation of the terms of the French-brokered cease-fire agreement, Georgian officials said. Russia calls the soldiers "peacekeepers," and says they are authorized to remain in place under a provision of the accord that allows for forces to "monitor" the conflict zone.
Russian forces also remain in the western port city of Poti, far inside undisputed Georgian territory.
Meanwhile, Georgian and South Ossetian officials continued to negotiate the release of the remaining Georgian captives. Georgia says that it has returned all Russians and Ossetians captured in the fighting.
Lomaia said that in exchange for the Georgian civilians, the South Ossetians have demanded the release of 14 convicted criminals held in Georgian prisons, including those who carried out a 2006 car bombing in Gori that killed three officers and two civilians.
"None of the people they want have anything to do with the current conflict," Lomaia said. "We may release some of them, but we can't release terrorists."
Some of the recently released Georgians, nearly all of whom were women, declined to speak to a reporter because they were concerned about the safety of their husbands, fathers or sons still held. Those in custody were as young as 12 and as old as 95, they said.
Tina Mebienidze, 60, from the Georgian village of Kekhui, said she fled north to Tskhinvali during the fighting and was rounded up with other Georgians by the local police.
"The guards would throw scraps of bread into the cell full of people and say, 'Eat it, you pigs,' " she said. "They had no reason to hold us. We asked them, 'You burned our houses, what more do you want?' "
Giorgi Gogia of Human Rights Watch, who also interviewed the former prisoners Saturday, said, "It is very clear that these people were unlawfully detained on the basis of their ethnicity." Gogia said the "ghastly conditions that these people have been kept in" were a "violation of international law."
Correspondents Tara Bahrampour in Tbilisi and Philip P. Pan in Moscow contributed to this report