Asia Crisis

South Ossetians flee cellars for safety in Russia

JAVA, Georgia, Aug 11 (Reuters) - A safe haven in Russia was almost within sight for refugees from South Ossetia's besieged capital on Monday as they waited in parched streets for buses to ferry them over the border.

Java, between South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and the border with Russian North Ossetia, has become a staging area for people fleeing cellars where they hid from Georgian shelling that Moscow says has nearly destroyed their city.

Some wearing only dressing gowns and sneakers, they fled Tskhinvali and surrounding villages carrying plastic bags of clothes and documents, and some scant food supplies.

Some had walked down through the mountains and slept in forests to get to Java, where buses collected them for the journey to the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz. Russian artillery fired from Java's outskirts as columns of tanks, armoured vehicles, howitzers and rocket launchers flowed in. South Ossetian men wielding Kalashnikov assault rifles and wearing flip-flops loitered in the shade.

"There is so much machinery flowing in from both sides. I am afraid the fighting will be so fierce there won't be a house left standing," said Zaira Slanova, aged 70, a retired engineer from Tskhinvali.

She was waiting for her sister, aged 77, to join her in Java for the short ride to Vladikavkaz. Her children, who live in Moscow, had arranged transport over the border, she said.

Slanova said she had spent four days hiding in a cellar as Georgian troops shelled Tskhinvali. Two days into the siege, an elderly man was killed by a mortar on the street outside.

"We all suffered two days from the terrible stench of putrefaction as he was decomposing in the scorching heat," Slanova said. "So we just buried him on the spot where he died."


South Ossetia, which fought to break free from Georgian rule in 1991-92, maintains close ties with its Russian North Ossetia. Most of South Ossetia's 70,000 people hold Russian citizenship, entitling them to Russian state benefits.

South Ossetia's affinity with Russia has been a thorn in the side of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who took power in a 2006 grassroots revolution. His aspirations to join NATO and promises to ensure territorial integrity have won support from Western governments.

"If Saakashvili stood in front of me, I would wish him eternal hell after what we have been through," an elderly woman said, weeping in a Tskhinvali street as she recounted how she hid from Georgian bombardment in a cellar with her two terrified grandchildren.

"Why is he trying to kill Ossetians? He should see with his own eyes what he has done with us. He would be ripped to bits on the streets if he ever came here."

As Georgian troops shelled the city, she said, her grandson screamed for "Uncle Putin" to save him. "Thank God the Russians have come," she said. "It is getting better."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday criticised the West, saying it had mistaken the aggressors for victims in the conflict over South Ossetia.

"Putin is our golden leader. He defends us and gives us food," said 73-year-old Nadezhda Pliyeva, waiting in Java for a bus to Vladikavkaz after fleeing the village of Prinevi, 12 km from Tskhinvali.

Tengiz Khugayev, aged 45, a member of the South Ossetian rebel contingent dressed in camouflage uniform, was shuttling refugees between Java and the North Ossetian capital.

"One should understand that if we are cut off from Russia, we will have no future," Khugayev said.

"If Russia withdraws its troops from here, we won't be able to do anything. Look, the Georgians laid waste to Tskhinvali in just one day. We will not survive without Russia." (Additional reporting by Denis Sinyakov in Tskhinvali; Writing by Melissa Akin; Editing by Catherine Evans)