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Anger smoulders in rebel city rubble

Russian soldiers walk in a street in Tskhinvali

Barely a building in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali escaped unscathed from the fighting that began last week, the BBC's Sarah Rainsford discovers.

Some, like the offices of the local administration, are smoke-blackened shells; in one residential area, a whole street has been reduced to rubble.

We were bombed for three days and nights. If Russia had not helped, we would have disappeared
Lusya
Tskhinvali resident

Everywhere, there are mountains of shattered glass. Those who didn't flee South Ossetia as refugees are now emerging from their basements to begin the clean-up.

There is no running water here now and no electricity.

One woman, Lusya, took me down into the basement of her apartment block to show me where she had hidden from the worst of the fighting. A small oil lamp threw the only light onto the dank, cramped cellar.

"We were here four days and nights. We couldn't sleep. Our whole building shook with the bombing," Lusya said. "I just sat here, with my 16-year-old son."

As soon as the fighting calmed down, Lusya sent her son across the border into Russia for safety.

She and her neighbours - and many Ossetians I met both in Tskhinvali and in the main refugee camp in Russia - are furious about what has happened to their city.

They are very clear who they blame: Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, who sent troops to re-take control of this breakaway region. That effort has clearly backfired. The pro-Russian sentiment I experienced on my last visit four years ago has become far fiercer as a result of this conflict.

"They signed a ceasefire, but Saakashvili can start bombing us again any minute," Lusya said, referring to the OSCE/EU-brokered peace plan between Moscow and Tbilisi.

"Look how many people died here! We can never join Georgia after this. We'll cope on our own."

Russians remain

Moscow says that 1,600 civilians died in the fighting in Ossetia. In Tskhinvali, locals claimed bodies had lain in the streets for some time, and many are now buried in temporary graves in back yards. We saw no evidence to support - or dispute - the numbers.

Destroyed Georgian tanks make good trophy photo opportunities for Russian troops

"We were bombed for three days and nights. If Russia had not helped, we would have disappeared," Lusya's neighbour Elena said, visibly angry. "Only Russia takes us under its wing. We want to be with Russia."

On the next street, an armoured personnel carrier carrying Russian troops rolled past the mangled metal wreckage of two Georgian tanks. Other soldiers stopped to take trophy photographs.

We were escorted in South Ossetia by the Russian military, which now controls most of the territory here. Pointing out the tank wreckage, the deputy commander of Russian ground forces insisted that Georgia was the initial aggressor in this conflict - sending in tanks that targeted Russians and Ossetians.

"Half an hour before the tanks began firing, the Georgian peacekeepers disappeared from the base," said Igor Konashenkov. "They left their food uneaten and abandoned their kit. Then the shooting began."

Despite international calls for a withdrawal, there is no sign of Russia pulling its troops out of Ossetia. By Wednesday, they had received an order to cease fire, but not to leave.

Their presence is popular with many locals, who wave as soldiers drive past in the street.

Little left

On Wednesday, the military reported no serious breaches of the ceasefire, but a doctor at an emergency field hospital said 11 Russian soldiers had been wounded by Georgian snipers.

Heading out of Tskhinvali, we passed several houses in flames and many others that had already been burned out. At least two of the villages, including Kekhvi, were home to ethnic Georgians in Ossetia before this conflict, when, it appears, most of them fled. We met no Georgians at all on this trip.

"There were Georgian snipers in the villages and they were driven out," said the military spokesman we were travelling with. "Russian special forces will have used mortars and firebombs and the houses went up in flames. It's not revenge burnings."

But some suggest Ossetian militia are looting and burning in the Georgian villages.

We had no way to investigate that. Either way, there will soon be little left for the Georgians to return to.

This conflict has already destroyed any trust between Georgian and Ossetians. It now looks like any chance there was of reconciliation is burning along with the houses.

Map of Georgia





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