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Russian authorities should immediately take steps to end Ossetian militia attacks on ethnic Georgians in the Gori district of Georgia, Human Rights Watch said today. The Russian military should also ensure safe passage for civilians wishing to leave the region and for humanitarian aid agencies to enter.

"The Russian military has effective control of the Gori region, making it responsible for the security and well-being of all people living there," said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "Russia should prevent any further militia attacks and allow humanitarian aid to reach the hundreds of vulnerable civilians still in the area, including many elderly."

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed ethnic Georgians from the city of Gori and surrounding villages who described how armed Ossetian militias attacked their cars and kidnapped civilians as people tried to flee in response to militia attacks on their homes following the Russian advance into the area. In phone interviews, people remaining in Gori region villages told Human Rights Watch that they had witnessed looting and arson attacks by Ossetian militias in their villages, but are afraid to leave after learning about militia attacks on those who fled.

Russian military forces remain in Gori and the surrounding villages since advancing from South Ossetia on August 13, 2008. They have denied access to some humanitarian missions seeking to assist civilians. The UN, which has described the humanitarian situation in Gori as "desperate," has been able to deliver only limited food supplies to the city.

"Dato," a victim of an Ossetian militia attack, told Human Rights Watch that on August 12, militia fighters stopped a minivan carrying him and several other civilians near Tkviavi. The militia fighters attempted to abduct the male passengers, but Dato and four others managed to escape. No further information is available about the fate of at least eight men whom the militia abducted from the vehicle. Kidnapping and enforced disappearances are both prohibited under international law, and may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes, depending on the circumstances in which they occur.

Vasiko Tevdorashvili, a Georgian official from a Gori district village, told Human Rights Watch that some 250 civilians remain trapped in three villages. He stated that they fear attacks by Ossetian militia and need help to leave the area. Acts intended to spread terror amongst the civilian population are also prohibited and may amount to a war crime. In a phone interview with Human Rights Watch, "Anna," a school teacher trapped in the village of Mereti, described her plight: "There are about 60 people, mostly elderly, remaining in the village. We are hiding in the gardens and in the forest … Our [relatives] learned that three houses in our village were looted and burned by Ossetians, and we are scared that they will come for us as well. Many of us want to leave, but we are scared to do so … we are afraid that if we try to leave, Ossetians will kidnap us."

Although Human Rights Watch was able to speak by phone to people in Gori region villages, many of those who have fled the region have no information about the fate of their relatives who have remained.

On August 12 and 13, Human Rights Watch documented how Ossetian militias looted and burned houses in ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia, along the road from Java to Tskhinvali (for more background, click here and for a slideshow of the burning and looting, please click here).

Russian forces controlling Gori also denied access to most journalists trying to enter the city.

As the party to the conflict exercising effective control over Gori and the surrounding areas, Russia has an obligation under international humanitarian law to ensure the security and welfare of the civilians in the area. If it fails to take appropriate measures to protect civilians, ensure their security, and allow humanitarian access, it may be held responsible under humanitarian law for serious violations against civilians.

"The Russian military should immediately establish a safe corridor to and from Gori," said Denber. "No one should be forced to leave their homes, but those who wish to leave should be able to do so safely. Humanitarian relief workers should be allowed in to assist those who chose to remain or are unable to leave."

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