Georgians doing forced labor in South Ossetia

TSKHINVALI, Georgia: Against their will, Georgian men in their 40s and 50s hauled debris Saturday from the streets of separatist South Ossetia's bombed-out capital.

In a sign that Georgians are being abused in the Russian-controlled province, a Russian officer and armed Ossetians escorted forced laborers through the city, the nucleus of fighting that has pit two former Soviet neighbors against each other and worried the world.

"They are cleaning up after themselves," said Mikhail Mindzayev, South Ossetia's interior minister.

Georgian troops pounded the city with rockets and bombs in a bid to retake control of the province Aug. 7, provoking a fierce response from South Ossetia's Russian backers. Russia sent in hundreds of tanks and the ensuing street fighting gutted yet more of Tskhinvali. About 80 percent of the city's 30,000 residents fled, Mindzayev said.

Russia is now in charge of the province, Russian and Georgian leaders have signed a cease-fire deal, and Ossetian refugees are returning home — but local leaders and residents aren't ready to forgive their Georgian attackers anytime soon. Ossetians accuse Georgians of targeting civilians, a claim Georgia denies.

On Saturday, three teams of ethnic Georgians were seen cleaning the streets of Tskhinvali. When approached, one worker confirmed that he was being forced to work.

One group of about two dozen men was escorted through the streets by armed Ossetians and a Russian officer.

"Labor even turns monkeys into humans," the Russian officer said. He threatened to arrest an AP photographer if he took pictures, and would not give his name.

Lyudmila Bitoyeva, a resident of Tskhinvali in her 40s, said her family hosted five Georgian workers who were forced to clean streets and pick up wreckage after the fighting subsided.

After Russian and separatist forces had driven Georgian troops out of the nearly deserted city, there was widespread looting of stores and homes. The houses of ethnic Georgians on the outskirts of Tskhinvali were burned.

Mindzayev said police were cracking down on looters, and had shot dead two of them Thursday. He said police have instituted a policy whereby if they catch someone with a car or truck loaded with furniture or TV sets, and the driver does not seem to be the rightful owner, both the goods and the car are burned.

Much of the looting has been blamed on South Ossetian forces, but a spokeswoman for the separatist government denied this and said civilians from outlying villages were to blame.

Mindzayev described the situation in the city Saturday as "complicated and nervous." He said there were many unexploded shells laying on the ground. He also accused Georgian agents of shooting at people in the city, a claim that could not be independently confirmed.

Georgian forced laborers are not the only ones cleaning up the city; many returning refugees were sweeping up glass and debris from the fighting Saturday.

Their city is in pieces and still has no electricity. To find clean water, residents drive or hitch rides to creeks several miles (kilometers) away, and they are struggling to find food. Many complained about the late arrival of humanitarian aid. Many refugees are coming back to find their homes destroyed, and then they leave again.

Still, signs of a return to normalcy were starting to emerge. For the first time in days, there were more cars on the street than tanks Saturday.

Father Yakov, an Ossetian priest at a 400-year-old church in Tskhinvali, saw his house and part of his church destroyed by the fighting. He held up a book called "Life After Death" on a tour through the church's auxiliary rooms, and showed a piece of bomb wreckage inside its pages. Many of the church's icons were destroyed by rockets, he said.

The church is organizing a memorial service for those who died in the fighting. At the service, Father Yakov plans to hand out consecrated soil for parishioners to sprinkle on the graves of the dead, many of whom were buried in courtyards without religious ceremony.

He said the church would hand out aid to anyone in need, regardless of ethnic background.

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