Rights group challenges Russian version of war

MOSCOW Wed Aug 13, 2008 2:39pm EDT

A Georgian man carries his belongings from his damaged home in Gori, some 80 km (50 miles) from Tbilisi August 11, 2008. The simmering conflict between Russia and its small, former Soviet neighbour erupted last Thursday when Georgia sent forces into South Ossetia, a pro-Russian province that threw off Georgian rule in the 1990s. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

A Georgian man carries his belongings from his damaged home in Gori, some 80 km (50 miles) from Tbilisi August 11, 2008. The simmering conflict between Russia and its small, former Soviet neighbour erupted last Thursday when Georgia sent forces into South Ossetia, a pro-Russian province that threw off Georgian rule in the 1990s.

Credit: Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Human rights activists on Wednesday challenged Russia's estimate of the death toll from Georgia's assault on breakaway South Ossetia and rejected Moscow's assertion that the rebel capital had been destroyed.

"The damage is significant, especially in the city centre, and many houses hit were obviously not military targets -- houses, shops and the hospital. But I would not describe it as a city razed to the ground," Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch said by phone from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali.

Russia has put the death toll among South Ossetians from Georgia's attack last week at around 1,600 and cited this as justification for its massive military response, which routed Georgian forces. It has said the Georgian operation destroyed Tskhinvali.

"We have serious doubts about the numbers provided by the Russian authorities so far. The number of wounded and killed, just do not support each other, because the number of wounded is usually far larger than those killed," Neistat told Reuters.

"At this point, where the conflict is winding down, it is extremely irresponsible of the authorities to give these figures without evidence to support it."

Neistat and a colleague from the New York-based human rights group crossed into the Russian-controlled sector in South Ossetia from Georgian lines.

She said a doctor in the hospital had treated 273 wounded, who were mostly military, and spoke of 44 bodies being brought to the hospital, mostly civilian.

GEORGIA CRITICISED

Neistat also criticized some of the military tactics used by the Georgians.

"We are very clear that some of the weapons fired by the Georgians are unacceptable under international law," she said.

"The use of the Grad rocket launcher in urban areas is indiscriminate by nature and a breach of human rights law. Several rooms of the hospital were hit by Grads."

She added: "According to doctors, the hospital was under serious fire and, subject to further investigation, the rockets appear to have come from the Georgian side. It probably amounts to a persecution of civilians."

The human rights activists also witnessed South Ossetian militia members burning and looting homes in ethnic Georgian villages in the war-damaged region before the Russian military mounted roadblocks on Wednesday to stop it.

"We saw looting with our own eyes, they were taking household items, loading electric heaters, bicycles and carpets," Neistat said.

"In response to our pleas, it looks like the Russian military is trying to prevent looting today, they closed the road to the South Ossetian military."

She describing how she encountered elderly residents "in absolutely desperate condition" late on Tuesday fleeing ethnic Georgian villages that appeared to have been deliberately set on fire.

"We are sounding an alarm to international organizations, What we saw yesterday was a very clear violation of human rights law, these were elderly people who were victims. We have photos to back this up," she said.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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