KURTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Acrid smoke fills the air along a winding road that leads to the Georgian rebel town of Tskhinvali. Some local people call it the smell of revenge.
“This is the Ossetians burning the Georgian villages,” said one man, a driver who identified himself as Umar. “Unfortunately the time for revenge has come.”
Months of tension over South Ossetia escalated into fierce fighting this month after Georgia tried to recapture the breakaway, pro-Russian region and Moscow responded with crushing military force.
Russian troops drove out a Georgian force that briefly seized parts of South Ossetia, but mutual resentment is still running high in this tiny sliver of land in the Caucasus.
And the fact the separatists and their Russian backers now control pockets of the region that until now were under Tbilisi’s control and populated by ethnic Georgians has unleashed a wave of destruction.
A Reuters reporter traveling through villages near the rebel capital Tskhinvali that were historically populated by South Ossetia’s ethnic Georgian minority said many houses and cars were on fire. Some Georgian villages were completely deserted.
In one village, Kurta, two bulldozers operated by men in fatigues were seen demolishing village huts, raising columns of dust into the air and knocking down electricity poles.
Nearby, by the roadside, a dead cow was being skinned in the open by a group of soldiers in South Ossetian military uniforms.
The village appeared deserted as convoys of Russian troops rumbled along the highway towards the Russian border in what Moscow said was the start of a pull-back demanded by the West.
In Kvemoachabeti, two buses lay ablaze as groups of two to three camouflaged men patrolled the streets, green mountains towering above the village’s gardens and vineyards.
In another village, an appliances shop called “Elit Electronic” appeared to have been ransacked, its windows shattered and all the goods gone from the shelves.
Apart from scenes of destruction, the villages appeared calm and there were no signs of outright violence.
South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity has denied Tbilisi’s allegations of looting and destruction in Georgian-populated villages. Russian defence officials have dismissed claims they are abetting abuses by South Ossetian forces.
South Ossetians, ethnically different from Georgians, say they were forcibly absorbed into Georgia under Soviet rule and now want to exercise their right to self-determination.
Many see Georgia’s actions this month as unforgivable and have vowed revenge. Georgia, for its part, has accused Russia of giving weapons to South Ossetian rebels and sparking the war by sending troops to the breakaway region.
And the conflict is spreading beyond politics.
In the Georgian town of Gori — birthplace of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — a Russian Orthodox priest said he came to Georgia from Russia to protect his “brothers” and help with the relief effort.
“We are defending our Orthodox brothers, Ossetians,” said Father Pimen, sporting a metal cross over his black robes, after two boys on the main square shouted “enemy” at him. “We came here to help them when the Georgians were prepared to kill all of them.”
Writing by Maria Golovnina, editing by Mark Trevelyan