A Town Sits Uneasily On Georgia-Ossetia Divide

Although Russian troops have announced that they will partially withdraw from Georgian territory, they have left behind army checkpoints on Georgian territory. One South Ossetian town is on the ethnic fault line between Georgians and Ossetians.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Russian troops have begun a partial withdrawal from Georgian territory more than a week after the Russian military routed the army of its small former Soviet neighbor. But the Russians have left behind a number of army checkpoints on Georgian territory, which the White House calls unacceptable. NPR's Ivan Watson visited a South Ossetian town that falls along the ethnic fault line between Georgians and Ossetians. He filed this story.

IVAN WATSON: The spark that triggered this war in the Caucasus was a very local ethnic conflict between Georgia and Russian-backed separatists from the tiny breakaway region of South Ossetia. This week, armed South Ossetian militia men, wearing a variety of different combat fatigues, lounged in the shade beside crates of beer, outside what up until a week ago had been a Georgian government police station in the town of Akhalgori.

(Soundbite rooster crowing)

WATSON: For nearly two decades, this South Ossetian town has been governed by Georgia. But now, the red, yellow and white flag of the South Ossetian separatists hangs from the police station balcony, and the South Ossetian fighters here refused to use the town's Georgian name, instead, referring to Akhalgori by its old communist name, Leningori.

Unidentified man: (Speaking in foreign language)

WATSON: A South Ossetian militia officer here, who only gave his first name, Anatoli(ph), calls himself the temporary commander in charge of this town, which he now claims for the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Unidentified man: (Speaking in foreign language)

WATSON: This town is under the control of South Ossetia now, Anatoli says. I don't think it would be long before we declare ourselves an independent republic, he adds, and then probably a part of Russia.

But the ethnic Georgian residents of this town disagree. George Beridzec(ph) says most of his Georgian neighbors fled when the Russian Army and South Ossetian militias rolled into this town. Beridzec says he refuses to leave what he claims is the territory of Georgia.

Mr. GEORGE BERIDZEC: They have to leave Georgia because here we are Georgians and Ossetians people together are like brothers. We are neighbors and the Russian have to go because Russian armies, occupation army, my country Georgia, (bleep) Russian.

WATSON: Russia has strongly backed the South Ossetian separatists for more than a decade, even distributing thousands of Russian passports to South Ossetians. Lawrence Sheets is an analyst with the International Crisis Group. He says the long-term goal of the South Ossetians is annexation by Russia.

Mr. LAWRENCE SHEETS (Caucasus Project Director, International Crisis Group): So as an independent entity. I don't think anyone is under any illusions that this is actually going to be a common, independent, internationally recognized state, but it certainly could be annexed to Russia, and that really has been the stated goal of the South Ossetian leaders.

WATSON: But the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, remains adamant that he will never give up Georgia's territorial claims for South Ossetia, nor for the Russian-controlled breakaway region of Abkhazia.

President MIKHAIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgia): Never, ever Georgia will succumb to their pressures. Never, ever we will surrender. Never, ever we will give our freedom and independence. Never, ever we will give any piece of our territory. And freedom will go to every part of Georgia, to every ethnic group, to every community in Georgia, and we will definitely get rid of these invaders for good.

WATSON: Georgia triggered Russia's massive retaliation when it shelled and rocketed the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali on August 8th in a failed attempt to retake South Ossetia. Within days, Russian tanks easily advanced into Georgian territory. They were followed by South Ossetian fighters who were accused of burning and looting Georgian villages. Akhalgori was spared this treatment and residents are quick to point out that there are many inter-ethnic marriages here. But this war in the Caucasus may have done irreparable damage to ties between two ethnic groups that used to live side by side. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Akhalgori.

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HANSEN: You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News.

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