Thursday, August 28, 2008

Special Report: South Ossetia Wants Independence; West condemns any recognition of its sovereignty; Georgia is defeated

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

As Russia announced it was recognising the Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse was in South Ossetia witnessing the jubilation and dismay of the conflicting sides.

A Russian armoured personnel carrier raced down the road to where Georgian policemen were manning their checkpoint at the village of Mosabruni, just inside South Ossetia.

Accompanied by a helicopter gunship, the Russian soldiers told the Georgian police they had three minutes to get out. One of those minutes, an officer said ominously, had already passed.

The lightly armed Georgian policemen had no option but to obey.

Just 700m up the road, at the entrance to the town of Akhalgori, the South Ossetian militia had their own checkpoint.

They were better equipped than the Georgian police.

Aside from the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle, used by both sides, the separatists had concrete barriers, fox-holes, and - crucially - Russian-made armoured personnel carriers.

But they were taking it easy.

As the Russians chased the Georgians out of South Ossetia, the local militia were enjoying their lunch of Russian army rations - corned beef, liver pate and hunks of bread washed down with beer and shots of the local vodka, called chacha.

As a Russian helicopter gunship roared overhead, the Ossetian soldiers drained their glasses and drank to peace.

Civilians welcome

Later, we went into town.

Until the latest fighting, Akhalgori had been under Georgian control. Now the South Ossetians are in charge, and many ethnic Georgians have left.

But in their place, Ossetians are coming back.

One woman showed us the flat she said she had to leave the last time these two sides fought a war in the early 1990s.

Now she wants to reclaim her property.

Both the South Ossetian militia, and the government of the breakaway territory, insist they only want Georgian armed forces to leave. Georgian civilians, they say, are welcome to stay.

But while men with guns patrol the streets, most prefer to stay away.

Those who can, stay with friends and family away from the conflict zone.

Those less fortunate have ended up in temporary receptions centres in and around the capital, Tbilisi.

New reality

In Akhalgori's main square, a South Ossetian militiaman, calling himself Elbrus, chuckled when he heard the news of Russia's recognition of his homeland.

"It's a holiday!", he said as he picked up his walkie-talkie to inform his fellow soldiers, digesting their lunch back at the checkpoint on the way into town.

On the Georgian side of the border though, there was dismay.

"This is impossible," one local villager said. "You can't divide the people who live in this area."

Most Georgians regard South Ossetia and Abkhazia as historically part of their country.

Recognition of independence by Russia is not the same as being legally independent, but, with Russian support, the South Ossetians are forcing the Georgians to adapt to a new reality on the ground.

As the policemen settled into a new checkpoint just south of the de-facto border, what remained of Tbilisi's grip on its breakaway territories appeared to be slowly slipping away.

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