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Russian authorities should take immediate steps to stop South Ossetian militias from attacking ethnic Georgians in Akhalgori district in South Ossetia, Human Rights Watch said today. Russia should also ensure that local residents remain able to move freely to and from the rest of Georgia.

“South Ossetian militias are running wild attacking ethnic Georgians in Akhalgori,” said Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch. “It is high time for Russia to step up to its responsibilities as an occupying power in South Ossetia and rein them in.”

Akhalgori district, populated mainly by ethnic Georgians, is located in the eastern part of South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia. The district is now under Russian and South Ossetian control.

Human Rights Watch researchers visiting villages in Akhalgori district on November 20-21, 2008, interviewed several ethnic Georgians who described how armed South Ossetian militias have been harassing and attacking local residents and looting their property. Human Rights Watch also documented two attacks in November by South Ossetian militias against elderly civilians, one of whom died. When Human Rights Watch tried to talk to the deceased man’s relatives, armed militias arrived and chased the relatives away.

Prior to the August 2008 Georgian-Russian war, the Georgian government administered the villages in Akhalgori district. Russian and Ossetian forces entered the district on August 17 and Russian forces maintain two military bases in Akhalgori. As an occupying power under international humanitarian law, Russia has an obligation to ensure the security and welfare of civilians in the area.

Akhalgori hospital medical personnel told Human Rights Watch that in early November they treated “Tamaz,” an elderly resident of Kanchaveti village. Tamaz told the medical personnel that he had been watching over his grazing sheep when several armed men in camouflage tried to steal one of them. When he protested, they started beating him. The hospital workers said that Tamaz was brought in bleeding, with multiple bruises, severe damage to his genitals, and a fractured arm. He was later transferred to a hospital in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where he died. Tamaz’s relatives said the militia returned the next day and threatened to shoot one of them unless he gave the militia members a cow.

When Human Rights Watch met a group of Tamaz's relatives and neighbors on their way to his wake on November 21, aggressive and apparently intoxicated armed militia members arrived in a military truck. Three men jumped out and ran toward the funeral procession. One stood, with his submachine gun, between the relatives and the Human Rights Watch researchers, while the others forced the relatives to leave. The militias later threatened the Human Rights Watch researchers, demanding to know whether the local residents had told the researchers that Tamaz had been killed by Ossetians.

“Russian forces have to intervene to stop this violence and intimidation,” Lokshina said. “The security of the civilian population depends on their being able to communicate with the rest of the world.”

Akhalgori hospital medical workers also told Human Rights Watch that in mid-November they treated “Ilo,” an 83-year-old resident of Korinta village. Ilo told them that four Ossetians in camouflage uniform had beaten him up because he had a photograph of President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia on his wall and admitted to them that he considered Saakashvili to be his president.

Three members of the South Ossetian police confirmed the details of this incident to Human Rights Watch and said that one of the perpetrators had been apprehended and transferred to the police in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm whether the accused attacker is still in custody and whether the de facto South Ossetian authorities are conducting a criminal investigation.

Akhalgori district has only a very poor road connection to Tskhinvali. The only usable road from these villages goes to Tbilisi through the village of Odzisi; Russian forces maintain a checkpoint at Odzisi and prevent the Georgian police from entering the district.

Local residents are currently able to cross the administrative border to travel to Tbilisi. However, rumors that Russian and Ossetian authorities might close this border have caused anxiety. “Tamar,” whose first grandchild is due in December, told Human Rights Watch: “My three daughters all live in Tbilisi. How in the world am I going to see them? And what about the little one? I already know it’s going to be a girl. But will I ever see her?”

Human Rights Watch researchers observed that many people had left the district already, fearing the militias and that the border will be closed. A school official in Akhalgori told Human Rights Watch: “We had 236 students, but now only 136 remain. Ten of the teachers also left. There are all those armed men on the ground and people are frightened. There are all those rumors about the planned closure of the border. If that happens it’ll be the end of us. For the residents of Akhalgori, Tbilisi has always been a second home. If we’re cut off from it we just cannot stay!”

“Local residents are leaving because they fear being cut off from the rest of the world, left at the mercy of armed, uncontrolled militias,” Lokshina said. “As long as Russian forces stay in South Ossetia, they bear responsibility for ensuring law and order for local residents, and for preventing further ethnic-based violence.”

During the August war, South Ossetian militias burned and looted most ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia, effectively preventing 20,000 residents displaced by the conflict from returning.

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