Russian Troops Keep Grip On South Ossetia

Russia say tens of thousands of people have been displaced from South Ossetia, where the conflict erupted a week ago. Fighting has largely stopped in the area, but reports of looting and banditry continue.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to South Ossetia, where the conflict erupted a week ago. The Russians say tens of thousands of people have fled this breakaway region of Georgia. The fighting has largely stopped there, but there are reports of looting and banditry. It's been difficult to get into South Ossetia. NPR's Gregory Feifer managed to do that by traveling with Russian forces. We spoke to him a few hours ago as he was standing alongside the road, and he said the Russian presence is heavy.

GREGORY FEIFER: There are many long convoys of trucks belching diesel fumes, clogging up the roads, there are soldiers all over the place.

(Soundbite of voices)

FEIFER: I'm sorry, I'm getting forced to get in...

(Soundbite of commotion)

FEIFER: I've just climbed into a military truck that's now taking us south into the capital of Tskhinvali.

MONTAGNE: To continue just what you were saying about the Russian presence there - of course you're climbing into a Russian truck...

FEIFER: Well, that's right. That's right. They control this area completely. There is a token presence of what appears to South Ossetian forces, but it's really Russian forces controlling this region.

MONTAGNE: Greg has now made it to South Ossetia's capital of Tskhinvali and he joins us from that city. And Greg, where are you at this moment and what are you seeing?

FEIFER: Well, I'm in the center of the city. Much of the city has been destroyed. I'm standing next to a pile of rubble that used to be a building. It has one wall still standing. Not the entire city has been destroyed. It's pockets. I was in one neighborhood about half an hour ago that was utterly destroyed; it was residential buildings, an old - an old residential neighborhood that had been utterly destroyed that had just been turned to rubble. There are a lot of disabled Georgian tanks on the streets. There are a lot of bullet-ridden buildings. I see Russian soldiers everywhere. There are Russian military trucks. There are Russian military trucks and there are Russian armored personnel carriers and tanks. There's a huge Russian presence here.

MONTAGNE: There have been conflicting reports of casualties over these last days. Both sides, Russia and Georgia, blaming each other for - in some cases claiming thousands of deaths. What have you learned about that?

FEIFER: Well, I've been asking every single person that I've spoken to. Most of these people have been hiding for days in basements while fierce fighting was going on. They say that they had a very terrifying, terrible time. It was very difficult, they had very little water and food. And they were afraid to go outside. But when I asked them, do you know anybody who died, only one person told me that - out of about 30 that I've spoken to - said they know somebody specifically who has died. In the central hospital the head doctor told me that there were only 300 wounded treated there, which leads me and other people, including Human Rights Watch researchers to believe that far fewer people were killed here than the Russians are claiming.

MONTAGNE: And what about human rights abuses?

FEIFER: Well, when I was driving down into Tskhinvali approaching the city, we drove through a series of Georgian villages. There was Georgian writing, the street signs, the stores had Georgian writing, and almost every other building has been torched, has been burnt, and they were completely empty of people. So that to me appears to be evidence that the Georgian settlements here were burned by local South Ossetians, and this is also what other reporters and human rights researchers are saying as well.

MONTAGNE: Is humanitarian aid reaching South Ossetia as far as you can see?

FEIFER: Well, people say that they've been given gas, natural gas canisters. One elderly woman told me that she was given two packets of macaroni. There is some aid coming in. But I don't see any evidence of a huge humanitarian operation. I see military trucks and I see tanks, and I do not see a big humanitarian operation other than an emergency services field hospital.

MONTAGNE: Greg, thanks very much.

FEIFER: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: And that was NPR's Greg Feifer speaking to us from the capital of South Ossetia, the city of Tskhinvali.

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U.S. Toughens Rhetoric On Russia-Georgia Conflict

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy. i i

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (right) Thursday. Rice stopped in France to talk with foreign officials about a cease-fire agreement negotiated by Sarkozy on the Russian-Georgian conflict. She heads to Georgia Friday. Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (right) Thursday. Rice stopped in France to talk with foreign officials about a cease-fire agreement negotiated by Sarkozy on the Russian-Georgian conflict. She heads to Georgia Friday.

Philippe Laurenson/AFP/Getty Images
Credit: Corey Flintoff, Alice Kreit/NPR

As U.S. government officials struggle to get a good sense of what is happening on the ground in Georgia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is starting to play a more visible role on the diplomatic front. She was in talks in Paris Thursday, again calling on Russia to pull back.

"It is time for this crisis to be over," Rice said. "The Russian president has said that their military operations have halted. We would hope that he is true to his word and that those operations will halt."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says that Rice will ask Georgia to sign a cease-fire document that he negotiated with the Russians when she heads to Tbilisi Friday. But the peace plan on the table appears to make major concessions to Russia.

The Cease-Fire Plan

Georgians have raised concerns that part of the French peace plan is too vague, giving Russia room to maneuver and keep some forces not only in the breakaway South Ossetia region, where this conflict began, but also in other parts of Georgia.

Georgian Ambassador Vasil Sikharulidze has said his small nation is ready for a cease-fire, but only under certain conditions.

"We don't want any cease-fire document to become the legitimization for Russian occupation of Georgian territories," Sikharulidze said.

Officials traveling with Rice told reporters that the six-point plan she's bringing to Tbilisi Friday gives Russians a limited right to patrol in Georgia — beyond the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia where they already had peacekeepers.

But Rice did not mention that in public, insisting that both the U.S. and France respect the territorial integrity of Georgia.

"We will work very hard to see if we can bring an end to this crisis," Rice said. "It is long overdue. Too many innocent people have died. And Georgia, whose territorial integrity and independence and sovereignty we fully respect, must be able to get back to normal life."

Ignoring Russia's Bluster

U.S. officials say they are ignoring what they call the latest bluster from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov told reporters Thursday that the world should forget about Georgia's territorial integrity because South Ossetia and Abkhazia cannot be forced back under Georgian rule.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today that it is clear this conflict is about more than those regions and that this is Moscow's attempt to regain its sphere of influence. He said there should be consequences for Russia's aggression in Georgia, though he ruled out the use of U.S. military force.

"The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia," Gates said. "I see no reason to change that approach today."

A Threat To U.S.-Russian Relations

Gates has been tasked with a humanitarian operation and says that it appears the Georgian port in Poti is intact and supply routes are open. He warned that if Russia does not step back, U.S. and Russian relations could be hurt for years to come, and so too will Russia's aspirations to join international institutions.

"Everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as we — as we look ahead," Gates said. "And I think Russia's got some serious work to do to try and work its way back into the family of nations that are trying to work together and build democracy and build — and build their economies."

Perhaps the first sign of change happened in Poland, where the U.S. finally got the agreement it wanted to station U.S. missile interceptors as part of a missile defense system. Poland had been reluctant to go along with the U.S. plans for fear of angering Russia, but it initialed the deal Thursday.

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