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Georgia and Russia should not under any circumstances target civilians as the current hostilities intensify in South Ossetia, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch, concerned by reports of attacks targeting civilians, called on all sides to respect the absolute ban against targeting civilians or carrying out attacks that indiscriminately harm civilians.

“All sides must remember that attacks on civilians, or acts intended to terrorize civilians, clearly violate international humanitarian law, and may constitute war crimes,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This would be true even if they are carried out in reprisal for indiscriminate attacks by the adversary.”

After weeks of low-level hostilities, the conflict in South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia backed by Moscow, escalated dramatically in the early morning of August 8, 2008. Georgia declared that it intended to restore constitutional order and launched a large-scale military offensive. Russia sent additional troops to South Ossetia, saying they were reinforcements to Russian peacekeepers who are in the area to monitor a 1992 ceasefire between Georgian and South Ossetian forces.

South Ossetia authorities claimed that Georgian forces used Grad multiple launch rocket systems to shell civilian areas, particularly in the capital, Tskhinvali, and that dozens of buildings were destroyed or damaged, including the university, the hospital, a shopping center, schools, and several government buildings. According to unconfirmed media reports, several Ossetian villages, including Dmenis and Tsunar, also sustained significant damage.

Reports on casualties vary widely, with different media agencies citing figures ranging from 15 to 1,400 people killed in South Ossetia as a result of the attacks. None of these reports could be confirmed.

According to the Russian Federal Migration Service, 971 people fled South Ossetia on August 8 and sought refuge in North Ossetia, a Russian province that borders South Ossetia. North Ossetian hospitals reported that they were ready to admit the wounded; but the head of the regional hospital was quoted by Kavkazskii Uzel, a news website, as saying that, “the road which was intended for evacuation of the wounded has been bombed,” and doctors did not have access to the wounded.

Russia’s military command claimed that 12 Russian peacekeepers deployed in South Ossetia were killed and 120 injured, and also blamed the Georgian side for obstructing the evacuation of the wounded from Tskhinvali.

In the meantime, according to the BBC and other international media, Russian tanks have reportedly reached the northern suburbs of Tskhinvali while the Russian air force has been carrying out air raids in South Ossetia and further into Georgian territory. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Moscow of bombing Georgian air bases and towns, resulting in the deaths of 30 military personnel and civilians.

Human Rights Watch called on both parties to abide by the fundamental principle of international humanitarian law, which requires armed forces to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and between military objects and civilian objects, at all times. It is also forbidden to carry out indiscriminate attacks or attacks that cause damage disproportionate to the anticipated concrete military advantage.

South Ossetia was an autonomous province of Georgia during the Soviet era. It declared independence from Georgia in 1990, and armed conflict between South Ossetian and Georgian forces ensued in 1991 and 1992. The conflict ended in 1992 with a ceasefire and establishment of a tripartite peacekeeping force, with Russian, Ossetian and Georgian peacekeeping battalions. The ceasefire adhered, but tensions continued, with Georgia accusing Russia of providing assistance to South Ossetia’s separatist movement.

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