August 8, 2008 / 2:49 PM / 11 years ago

ICRC seeks access in S.Ossetia as violence grows

(recasts, adds U.N. agencies in paras 6-9, 14)

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Aug 8 (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday urged warring parties in Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia province to grant aid agencies access to civilians and evacuate those wounded in the escalating violence.

"The humanitarian situation in the conflict zone has worsened dramatically," said Dominique Liengme, head of the ICRC’s delegation for Georgia.

"Ambulances are finding it hard to reach injured people and frightened residents are hiding in their basements, without electricity, water, communications or access to services," she said.

Georgia tried to assert control over the rebel territory with tanks and rockets, and Russia sent forces to repel the assault where it backs separatists which have controlled the region since a war in the early 1990s.

Fighting between Georgian forces and Russian-backed separatists raged on Friday in and around Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. A Russian peacekeeper quoted by Interfax said shelling had practically destroyed the capital.

A staff member of the United Nations refugee agency in South Ossetia reported early on Friday that many buildings and houses had been destroyed in the fighting, spokesman Ron Redmond said.

"Water is also in short supply — a chronic problem being worsened by recent events — and most transport has stopped and shops are running out of food," he said.

Russian authorities have told the U.N. agency that 2,000 people had arrived from South Ossetia in North Ossetia-Alania, in the Russian Federation by Thursday night, Redmond said.

"According to non-official sources, some 400 people have moved from South Ossetia to other parts of Georgia," he added.

In a statement, the neutral ICRC urged "the parties to the conflict to allow humanitarian organisations unimpeded access to the affected areas and to enable medical personnel and ambulances to reach the sick and wounded".

The Swiss-based humanitarian agency voiced concern at the growing violence and called for all sides to distinguish between civilians and those taking direct part in the hostilities.

Civilians, fighters who surrender, the wounded and the sick must be treated humanely, it said.

Attacks that are indiscriminate or directly target the civilian population are strictly banned under international humanitarian law enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, it said.

The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) called for all sides to protect children who may be caught up in the violence.

(Editing by Mary Gabriel)

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