|ON MANOEUVRES: A Russian soldier moves through the woods on the outskirts of Gori|
THEY sit barely a few hundred yards apart. On one side Georgian police and paramilitaries wearing a mix of uniforms anxiously mill around their parked pick-up trucks full of weapons, ammunition and flak jackets.
Meanwhile, just down the road, Russian soldiers in fatigues and draped with bullet pouches perch on top of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, some dug in or camouflaged in the woods with foliage torn from surrounding trees.
The Russians' firepower is frightening, and the Georgians know it. Now and then the flat "pop pop" of Kalashnikov fire from the hills surrounding Gori ratchets up the tension.
Sometimes a Russian tank rumbles from its position kicking up a wake of yellow dust, or a helicopter gunship makes a clattering low overhead pass, and all Georgian eyes turn in the direction of the threat.
Truces and political agreements aside, here on the ground and inside Gori and other disputed parts of Georgia, it is difficult to believe that the military struggle is quite yet over.
Only last night, an hour after I left Gori, 12 Russian tanks broke through the no-man's land that separates the two sides south of the town sweeping past Georgian police and paramilitaries and covering 20km to bring the Russian armour to within 40km of the capital Tbilisi.
Given the frequency in recent days of such unpredictable Russian military activity, those Georgians who stand before them on Gori's frontline understandably remain edgy to say the least. Meanwhile, for the civilians caught up in this battlefield cat and mouse standoff it is an utterly terrifying ordeal.
"It's impossible to live like this, with this fear," said one old Georgian man yesterday, nervously wheeling a wooden barrow stacked with his family's meagre belongings out through the Russian cordon that ringed Gori and towards the Georgian lines.
"What you have seen in the town is nothing, believe me," he insisted. "With your own eyes you must see the evil they have done in the villages, burning and killing."
Time and again civilians abandoning their homes around Gori give similar accounts. How, having survived firefights and shelling between Georgian and Russian forces, they were then subjected, they say, to a frenzy of murder, rape, looting and the torching of their property by roaming bands of crazed militiamen, many of them drunk. Most insist the militias' actions were carried out under the gaze of the Russian Army.
Wearing white armbands which mark them as irregular fighters, witnesses confirm the militias comprise of men from various parts of the region, and include South Ossetians, Abkhazis, Kazakhs, Dagestanis and some Chechens.
Yesterday at one point on the outskirts of Gori an unmarked car full of bearded, heavily armed men with white armbands could be seen cruising the area. "Chechnya" was scrawled on the dirt of the vehicle's back window.
Over the last few days prowling bands of these militiamen have roamed Gori's streets and the villages north of the town, hijacking at gunpoint vehicles belonging to journalists and the UN. Some of the vehicles were later found abandoned and wrecked.
Earlier on Thursday, as reporters talked to Russian soldiers inside Gori, militiamen arrived by car and poured on to the streets, running and firing into the air and at reporters who scrambled for cover.
The gunmen seized three cars and Tamar Urushadze, a correspondent for Georgian public television who had been making a live report at the time, was hit in the arm by a bullet. Officials from the UNHCR also had to flee the shooting and take cover in nearby woods.
Yesterday, another group of Turkish television journalists found themselves under fire as they journeyed out from Gori through villages towards South Ossetia.
In the midst of this mayhem and lawlessness Russian troops appear unwilling or unable to rein in the militiamen, hampering efforts by humanitarian organisations to alleviate the suffering of those still inside Gori.
"Yes we have been inside Gori, but we need to make special arrangements with the Russians every time beforehand and even then it does not always work out," said Kakita Lomaia, one of the organisers of a small local aid convoy trying to get into the town yesterday.
As he spoke, humanitarian workers helped load buses full of bread and other basic provisions, but it was some time later before Russian military commanders gave permission for the convoy to enter Gori.
Just hours afterwards Russian tanks were on the move again, pushing out from Gori, which will make any humanitarian corridor from Tbilisi even more hazardous in the coming days.
Human right workers, meanwhile, have been accumulating evidence of alleged atrocities and indiscriminate military operations by Georgian, Russian and militia forces.
According to Marc Garlasco, of Human Rights Watch, there is growing evidence of the use of cluster bombs by Russian forces around Gori and elsewhere. It is the first time these weapons have been used since Israel utilised them in the war in Lebanon in 2006, and despite a recent international agreement on banning them.
"These weapons will leave a deadly legacy for some time to come for civilians around Gori and elsewhere," said Mr Garlasco, speaking on the outskirts of the town as Russian tanks rumbled past.
Under a peace plan delivered to Tbilisi yesterday by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russia says it will give Gori back to Georgia.
But the signs last night, as Russian tanks took up new positions 20 miles south of those earlier in the day, suggest Moscow's forces are tightening their grip more than ever.
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