Heavy damage in Tskhinvali, mostly at gov't center

TSKHINVALI, Georgia (AP) — Gutted and shrapnel-scarred buildings testify to fierce street battles and heavy rocket and bomb attacks in the separatist capital of South Ossetia. But there is little evidence civilians were specifically targeted by Georgian troops, as Russia claims.

During a visit Tuesday arranged by the Russian government, journalists from The Associated Press and other Western media were escorted into the city aboard armored vehicles.

Reporters witnessed more than a dozen fires in what appeared to be deserted ethnic Georgian neighborhoods and saw evidence of looting in those areas.

The heaviest damage from the recent fighting appeared to be around Tskhinvali's government center. More than a dozen buildings in the area were little more than scorched shells.

Several residential areas seemed to have little damage, except for shattered windows, perhaps from bomb concussions.

Near the city center, on Moscow Street, pieces of tanks lay in a heap near a bomb crater. The turret of one tank was blown into the front of the printing school across the street. A severed foot lay on the sidewalk nearby.

Salima Grapova, a 41-year-old music teacher pointed to the blast damage at the intersection, which is one of the hardest hit spots. A theater, typesetting school and an apartment house were heavily damaged or destroyed.

"Here every rock had blood on it," she said of the fierce fighting. Asked why her neighborhood had suffered, she noted that the train station and other government targets were nearby.

Outside town, dozens of houses burned along the main road. A Russian officer said some of the buildings had been burning for days and others were damaged the previous night during an airstrike by a single Georgian plane.

When an AP photographer rode through the same villages Monday morning, none of the houses was burning. The fires only began Monday night, more than 24 hours after the battle for the city was over.

Georgia's security council said Tuesday it filed suit against Russia in the International Court of Justice, alleging Russian troops who intervened in the conflict are trying to drive ethnic Georgians out of South Ossetia and another breakaway area, Abkhazia.

That claim came after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin officials accused Georgia of committing genocide after launching its offensive last week, including missile attacks, to try to retake control of this region populated by ethnic Ossetians.

Russian officials in Tskhnivali echoed that theme during the visit by reporters Tuesday.

Army Col. Igor Kononenko showed off a civilian neighborhood, once part of the old Jewish quarter, that sustained extensive damage. He said that was proof the Georgians targeted civilians.

"This street is very small, tanks can't go through here," he said, arguing there was no military reason for the Georgian military to shell the neighborhood.

However, the district stands on a hillside in the line of fire between Georgian rocket position and Tskhinvali's government center, located around the university. Some civilians in the area conceded Georgian fire at the government building might have fallen short.

At the regional hospital, doctors said the patients were moved to the basement during Georgia's bombardment of the city, and had to do without light, water or toilets. The dungeon-like rooms still stank of sewage Tuesday, while sheets and bandages were stained with blood.

Dr. Tina Zhakarova, who said the hospital had treated 224 patients during the fighting, called the Georgian assault on the city an act of ethnic cleansing.

Noting the medical facility had been damaged, she held out a handful of shrapnel to reporters. Doctors can protect people from disease, she said. "How can we protect them against this?"

But from the outside, the hospital appeared to have only light damage, either from bullets or shrapnel. Most of the windows were shattered.

Russian army officers said a Georgian missile pierced the hospital's roof and caused damage not visible on the outside. But they refused to show reporters the destruction, saying it was not safe.

Georgian authorities also have charged misdeeds by Russian troops and their allies.

An AP photographer saw irregular troops near burning homes in ethnic Georgian villages, and there was evidence of looting in those areas.

At an Ezeit electronics store with smashed windows, a few appliances stood outside, but most of the stock seemed to be gone.

Nearby, a man in dark glasses, camouflage and a Kalashnikov assault rifle drove a tractor hauling what looked like a large refrigerator partly visible under a blanket. A car went down the road with two new satellite dishes on top.

Much of South Ossetia has become an armed camp after fighting that Russian officials said had killed 2,000 Ossetians.

Two rocket launchers stood in an alpine meadow near grazing cows Tuesday. Resorts, picnic areas and a school had become impromptu military bases. A long line of Russian army trucks headed south day and night on mountain roads toward Tskhinvali.

In the capital, meanwhile, the few residents left dind't appear to have much to do except mourn their dead. Many complained bitterly about alleged Georgian "fascism."

Sporadic fighting. There was artillery fire, apparently aimed at suspected Georgian positions, and anti-aircraft missile was fired. No aircraft was visible from the ground, and nothing appeared to be hit.

Asked whether Russian forces planned to push deeper into Georgia, Kononenko, the army colonel, said he had orders not to move his troops. "We are staying here," he said.

Associated Press writer Musa Sadulayev contributed to this report.