Georgian villages burned and looted as Russian tanks advance
Quote:Villages in Georgia were being burned and looted as Russian tanks and soldiers followed by "irregulars" advanced from the breakaway province of South Ossetia, eyewitnesses said today.
"People are fleeing, there is a mood of absolute panic. The idea there is a ceasefire is ridiculous," Luke Harding, the Guardian's correspondent, said.
Earlier, witnesses reported a military convoy heading towards the Georgian capital Tbilisi, but it later turned off the road and headed back towards South Ossetia. Russia denied any advance.
Harding, watching villages near Gori burn, said witnesses had told him Russian military, including at least 25 tanks, had moved from the Russian-controlled South Ossetia into the villages.
"They asked villagers to hang white flags or handkerchiefs outside their houses if they did not want to be shot, they say."
The tanks had passed through the village of Rekha at about 11.20am local time. "Behind them (say eyewitnesses) is a whole column of irregulars who locals say are Chechens, Cossacks and Ossetians.
"Eyewitnesses say they are looting, killing and burning. These irregulars have killed three people and set fire to villages. They have been taking away young boys and girls," said Harding, watching smoke rise from another village, Karaleti.
He said he had witnessed people fleeing in the direction of Tbilisi. "For three hours there were people fleeing in cars, I saw one with 11 people and a Lada with eight people in it." He had also seen people fleeing on a horse and cart and a tractor.
It appeared that Russian tanks had entered Gori, targeting military installations, some built with Nato money.
The ministry of foreign affairs in Georgia claimed four civilian cars with murdered passengers "were reported to have been seen in the village of Tedotsminda near Gori."
Russia's deputy chief of general staff, Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitisyn, said earlier today that no tanks were in Gori. He claimed Russians went into the town to implement the truce with local officials but could find none.
A reporter from the Associated Press also said fighters from the other separatist region of Abkhazia had moved into Georgian territory, planting their flag on a bridge over the Inguri river and saying they were laying claim to what had historically been Abkhazian territory.
Earlier, Georgia said its troops had pulled out of Abkhazia after the Kremlin had laid down humiliating peace terms as the price for halting the Russian invasion and its four-day rout of Georgian forces.
The ceasefire required both sides to return to positions they held before the conflict started in South Ossetia last week.
The key demands are that the Georgian leader pledges to abjure all use of force to resolve Georgia's territorial disputes with the two breakaway pro-Russian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; and that Georgian forces withdraw entirely from South Ossetia and are no longer part of the joint "peacekeeping" contingent there with Russian and local forces.
The Russian president, Dimitry Medvedev, also insisted the populations of the two regions had to be allowed to vote on whether they wanted to join Russia, prefiguring a possible annexation that would enfeeble Georgia and leave its leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, looking crushed.
Russian leaders claimed Georgian forces perpetrated atrocities against civilians when Saakashvili gave the go-ahead last week for the bungled attempt to recapture South Ossetia.
The gamble triggered the onslaught which the US state department yesterday described as "plain and simple blatant aggression on the part of Russia".
Georgian forces have been part of the peacekeeping force in South Ossetia for the past 15 years. But Russian leaders declared yesterday the Georgians would not return, and South Ossetia would be under Russian control.
"They shot their brother Russian peacekeepers, then they finished them off with bayonets, so we are not going to see them there any more," said Dmitri Rogozin, the Russian ambassador to Nato in Brussels.
While Nato leaders in Brussels stressed that South Ossetia and Abkhazia were part of Georgia, Medvedev encouraged the secession of the two breakaway regions.
"Ossetians and Abkhaz must respond to that question taking their history into account, including what happened in the past few days," he said.
Western officials at Nato, in the EU, in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and in Washington, while calling for an immediate ceasefire, also demanded that Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity be upheld.
Following a meeting of Nato states yesterday, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato's secretary general, accused Russia of not respecting Georgia's territorial integrity. "Abkhazia and Ossetia, if I mention territorial integrity, are to the best of my knowledge part of Georgia." He added that "Nato is not seeking a direct role or a military role in this conflict".
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