WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hundreds of houses in ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia were torched in August, after Russian troops took control of the area, according to an analysis of satellite images released on Thursday.
The analysis, conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on behalf of Amnesty International, did not show who was responsible for the damage but Amnesty said it may be evidence of war crimes.
Human rights activists have criticized Russia for ignoring the looting of ethnic Georgian villages by armed South Ossetian militias during and after the war.
Georgia says the looting amounted to "ethnic cleansing." Russia says Georgia's shelling of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali -- which sparked the war -- amounts to a genocide against the Ossetians. Both deny the other's claims.
"These images do not lie -- the additional destruction shown from August 10 to August 19 must be used to establish who had responsibility for protecting civilians from attacks by militia," said Amnesty's Ariela Blatter.
"The destruction of civilian infrastructure highlights the need for the international community to undertake an independent investigation of abuses during the conflict, with the complete support of all parties involved."
The war erupted in August when Georgia tried to retake by force South Ossetia, a tiny breakaway region that threw off Georgian rule in a war in the 1990s and is supported by Russia.
Moscow responded on August 7-8 with a counterattack that overwhelmed Georgian forces and deepened fears over the security of the Caucasus as a way to take oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe without going through Russia.
Russia and Georgia have accused each other of targeting civilians during the war, though there was little way to assess the validity of the claims as many ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia were off limits to reporters during the war.
The satellite images, taken on August 10 and 19, give a glimpse of some of the damage and when it was done.
Initially, the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali suffered heavy damage but after Russia had driven out Georgian regular troops from South Ossetia, it was ethnic Georgian villages which sustained the most damage.
In the ethnic Georgian village of Tamarasheni, 152 structures that were intact on August 10 seemed to have been damaged by August 19, an analysis of the images showed.
Just 10 structures were damaged in or near the ethnic Georgian villages of Eredvi, Berula and Argvitsi, by August 10 but 147 were damaged or destroyed by August 19.
"There have been reports of beatings, harassment, looting and burning of houses both in South Ossetia and parts of Georgia proper," Amnesty said in a statement.
Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili said Russia was responsible for the territory which it controlled.
"Ethnic cleansing and damage and extensive violations of fundamental human rights in these regions is the responsibility of the Russian side," she told Reuters. "We clearly attribute that responsibility to the Russian side."
"We are very much open to the idea of an international commission of investigation."
South Ossetia's self-styled president, Eduard Kokoity, has repeatedly denied claims of ethnic cleansing in the villages.
"Georgian units were burning these houses in Georgian villages as they retreated," a spokeswoman for Kokoity said when asked about the images. "There was absolutely no ethnic cleansing of Georgians by the Ossetian side, none whatsoever."
She said South Ossetia wanted to study the images more carefully before commenting further. There was no immediate comment on the analysis from the Russian Defense Ministry.
The satellite images also showed that Tskhinvali, which was heavily bombed by Georgian forces at the start of the war, sustained damage to 182 structures before August 10 with four more structures damaged by August 19.
Amnesty said the images support its assessments from on the ground reports that more than 100 civilian houses in Tskhinvali were hit by shelling during the initial Georgian bombardment.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 192,000 people were forced to flee their homes because of the conflict. South Ossetia says 38,000 refugees fled the region during the conflict while Georgia says tens of thousands were forced to flee.
Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze and Matt Robinson in Tbilisi, Dmitry Solovyov in Mineralniye Vody, Russia and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow