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Georgia/Russia: Use of Rocket Systems Can Harm Civilians

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the use of indiscriminate weapons, particularly Grad and Uragan rockets, in populated areas during the conflict over South Ossetia.

On August 11, 2008, Human Rights Watch in South Ossetia saw Russian military trucks, including at least two Uragan 16-round multiple rocket launchers and four trucks with rockets, being moved toward South Ossetia’s administrative border with Georgia. The Uragans were among numerous pieces of heavy artillery being moved by the Russian army toward Georgia on August 11.

The soldiers who operated the trucks told Human Rights Watch that they were moving toward the Georgian border and were waiting for the orders to strike. Meanwhile, Russian television on August 12 aired video images of Grad and Uragan rockets being fired into the Kodori Gorge, an area of Abkhazia that had been under Georgian control.

In addition to high-explosive fragmentation warheads, both 122MM Grad (Hail) and 220MM Uragan (Hurricane) rockets also have cluster munition warheads that contain submunitions. Grads and Uragans are designed to affect areas rather than specific targets.

“These are all indiscriminate weapons when used in populated areas, as they cannot be targeted against only military targets and therefore risk causing unnecessary harm to civilians,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They simply shouldn’t be used in areas where there are civilians.”

Human Rights Watch learned that about 1,500 people, almost all of the population of the Kodori Gorge, had been evacuated before the shelling started.

On August 11, Human Rights Watch researchers traveled to the South Ossetian town of Java to collect more data on the people displaced by the conflict and the number of casualties, as well as to obtain more information on the humanitarian consequences of the fighting in South Ossetia. Human Rights Watch is currently obtaining figures on the same from the Georgian side of the conflict.

Java is about halfway between Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, and the South Ossetian border with North Ossetia, in Russia. All along the route from the border, Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed Russian military columns (including armored personnel carriers, tanks, heavy artillery, and other military vehicles) moving toward Tskhinvali.

According to information collected in South Ossetia, the Georgian airstrikes continued on August 11. Residents of Java told Human Rights Watch that Georgian airplanes fired two rockets near the village of Gufta on the outskirts of Java. No damage to the village has been reported. The residents said the planes appeared to be targeting a “strategic bridge” crucial to the movement of the Russian troops, but missed. The residents also said that previously, on August 8, Georgian planes had also fired rockets near the bridge, causing severe damage to two houses in the village of Sakire. As a result of the attack, a child in the village was wounded.

A doctor at the Java hospital told Human Rights Watch that on August 9 and 10 the hospital treated about 50 wounded (both military and civilians), and on August 8 had already treated 60 (also military and civilians) , with the help of the Russian emergency medicine mobile hospital. The seriously wounded were then taken to North Ossetia. It is likely that many of the same people were later treated by the field hospital there.

The doctor also said that five bodies were delivered to the hospital between August 8 and 11, all military personnel and South Ossetian volunteer militias from outside of Java. Representatives of Java town administration told Human Rights Watch that over the last four days, four people were killed in the town. The administration initially said that all of the casualties were civilians, but later clarified that in fact three of the dead were members of the militias, and one of them, a woman, was a civilian.

Human Rights Watch observed that many local residents refer to the members of volunteer South Ossetian militias as “civilians” thus distinguishing them from Russian military servicemen.

Several Java residents as well as people displaced from other parts of South Ossetia told Human Rights Watch that almost all the men from their areas joined volunteer militias, often after moving their families to safety in North Ossetia. All civilian officials Human Rights Watch met with were wearing camouflage fatigues (including the Java head of administration and a Java-based member of the South Ossetian parliament). These officials also confirmed that virtually all able-bodied males were enlisted into militias “to defend their families and their motherland, together with the Russian army.” The officials in Java also said that Russian Cossacks were fighting alongside Ossetian militias.

Java administration staff told Human Rights Watch that the town serves as a transfer point for the displaced moving from Tskhinvali to North Ossetia. As of the evening of August 11, the authorities informed Human Rights Watch that there were no displaced persons in Java, and the officials said they have not compiled any lists of people who passed through Java. They said, however, that over the last two days multiple buses have been transporting people from Tskhinvali to North Ossetia.

Indeed, along the road, Human Rights Watch saw several buses with the displaced moving from South to North Ossetia, while similar buses packed with young men in camouflage fatigues were moving in the opposite direction.

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