In S. Ossetia, Opposition To Georgia Remains

The people of the breakaway region of South Ossetia say they will never rejoin Georgia. Many of them say they want independence, or even union with Russia. It seems Russia will keep its forces in South Ossetia for the foreseeable future.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, to one of the regions that Georgia and Russia are fighting over - South Ossetia. That's where the conflict began earlier this month. The Russians have promised to withdraw from Georgian territory, although there's little sign of that. The future of South Ossetia is a different story. Russia's actions on the ground suggest the Kremlin may be planning to redraw the region's map.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from South Ossetia.

GREFORY FEIFER: In the devastated South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, a residential neighborhood of small two-storey houses has been reduced to piles of rubble.

Izolda Kotila's(ph) home was hit by shelling during ferocious street fighting. She says Russia has to control South Ossetia to ensure that never happens again.

Ms. IZOLDA KOTILA: (Through translator) We've been part of Russia since the 18th century. It was only under the Soviet Union that Ossetia was split and South Ossetia was given to Georgia. This is the land of our ancestors and the Georgians have no claim to it.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

FEIFER: Tskhinvali will take a long time to rebuild, but the Russian emergency core of engineers is already putting up scaffolding around hospitals, schools and other bullet-ridden buildings. Russia has supported this isolated, impoverished region since it broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s.

After Tbilisi tried to retake control earlier this month, Moscow responded with overwhelming force, destroying the Georgian military and occupying much of Georgia.

In Tskhinvali, as in the rest of South Ossetia, there are Russian military trucks, tanks and soldiers everywhere.

The Russians are in charge here, and Idanyora Vidoyva(ph), deputy head of the South Ossetian government, says that's just what the South Ossetians want.

Ms. IDANYORA VIDOYVA: (Through translator) We want to be recognized as an independent republic as soon as possible and then we'll join Russia. This land has never been part of Georgia.

FEIFER: Russia's foreign minister has said Georgia can't forget about any intention to get South Ossetia back even though the cease-fire Moscow signed with Tbilisi says both sides must withdraw their forces to positions they held before the conflict began and that the region's status will be decided in future negotiations.

Russia says Georgia has no right to rule South Ossetia because it attempted to carry out genocide against the South Ossetians. But Tbilisi has long accused Moscow of wanting to annex South Ossetia.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

President MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgia): The goal of this operation is not only to seize and annex part of Georgian territory, but they clearly said that the goal of this operation is the change of democratic and elected government of Georgia.

FEIFER: Russia's humiliating occupation of a large swath of Georgian territory and reports of wide-scale looting by Russian troops appear aimed at dismantling Georgia's infrastructure, strangling its economy and paralyzing its government. And Moscow said even after its troops withdraw from positions deep inside the country, Russian forces will remain indefinitely in buffer zones around South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia. Some believe that means Moscow plans to keep that territory in Georgia proper for itself.

Forty miles from Tskhinvali, the occupied Georgian city of Gori is half deserted. Residents are nervous but many are still defiant.

Ariel Kazrazi(ph) says Georgia will never give up Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Mr. ARIEL KAZRAZI: (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: That's out of the question, he says. Russia is only using the conflicts in those regions to take Georgia's territory. But we'll always remain free, he says. As to what makes him sure, he replies, the West will help us.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Tskhinvali, South Ossetia.

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