September 11, 2008
By MANSUR MIROVALEV,
Associated Press Writer
Fewer than 100 civilians died in Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia during last month's war, human rights activists said Thursday a far smaller number than Russian and South Ossetian officials have claimed.
Tatiana Lokshina, a Russian researcher for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch who visited the region, said trips to a hospital, a cemetery and conversations with residents failed to corroborate claims by Russia and its South Ossetian allies that about 1,500 civilians were killed in the region.
"I don't understand where the number of 1,500 comes from," Lokshina told reporters.
"Thank God, civilian deaths are not measured in thousands," she said, adding that the number of civilians who died appeared to be "fewer than 100."
Lokshina said it was impossible to determine the precise number of casualties at this point.
She said the 1,500 civilian deaths presented by South Ossetian's separatist authorities appeared to have included local militants as well as some wounded civilians who might have been taken by retreating Georgian troops to Georgia proper for treatment.
Alexander Cherkasov of Russia's leading rights group, Memorial, who also visited the region, said history has proven that the number of dead civilians could not be higher than the number of civilians wounded. He said 273 civilians were officially registered as wounded in the main hospital in South Ossetia, which treated victims of the conflict.
Georgian authorities said 169 Georgian military and police and 69 civilians had been killed in the war. The Russian military said 74 Russian servicemen died in fighting.
Russian and South Ossetian authorities have accused Georgia of masterminding a genocide of South Ossetians during the conflict, which started Aug. 7 when Georgian government forces launched an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia.
Russian forces repelled the offensive and pushed deep into Georgia.
Lokshina said researchers have not found evidence of atrocities, torture and rapes committed by Georgian troops contrary to widely publicized Russian and South Ossetian accusations.
But she said her trips to the region did reveal evidence of Georgian tanks deliberately firing at basements of apartment buildings where civilians were hiding.
There was no immediate response from the Georgian government. Russian prosecutors have launched a probe into civilian deaths and refrained from comment until it their investigation is complete.
Cherkasov said Georgian civilians have been imprisoned, beaten up, mistreated and used as forced labor by South Ossetians.
Lokshina and Cherkasov also said South Ossetian militants continue looting and destroying ethnic Georgian villages. They urged Russian authorities to reinstall checkpoints at Georgian villages and to keep searching for remaining civilians, especially the elderly.
Cherkasov said Georgian authorities told ethnic Georgians to leave their houses days before the shelling started as part of a "planned evacuation."
"This means they are not refugees, but evacuated persons," he said.
The United Nations said more than 100,000 people have been uprooted by the conflict.
While Russian soldiers have begun preparations to pull out of some of their positions outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia in line with a deal clinched by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Georgian Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia said Thursday evening they had not withdrawn from any of 24 posts they still manned in Georgia.
Lomaia said even a position the Russians had appeared to be abandoning near Abkhazia on Tuesday was still manned.
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said Monday that Russia would withdraw from five positions in western Georgia within a week.
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