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Page last updated at 09:34 GMT, Thursday, 14 August 2008 10:34 UK

Georgians fear revenge attacks

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Tbilisi

A woman, Marina, stands next to the truck in which she sleeps
Marina left all her belongings behind when she fled Gori

For the past three days, Marina's bed has been a pile of straw thrown in the back of a lorry.

It is parked along a dusty road in one of Tbilisi's residential areas.

She shares it with 15 other women, all of whom have fled from the town of Gori.

"We left everything behind," she wept. "Three of the girls are pregnant, there is no air here, it is very cramped, but we have nowhere else to go."

As the Russian military moved deeper into Georgian territory on Wednesday, thousands of people continued to flee towards Tbilisi.

It is a mass exodus that Georgia's capital cannot cope with. Many schools and kindergartens across the city are full of displaced people.

All of them tell stories of looting, violence and reprisals in the areas that are now under Moscow's control.

"My minivan was stopped by men in Russian peacekeeping uniforms," Koba told me, as we sat outside Tbilisi School No 32, where he was trying to secure a bed.

Many people have died, why is the government lying?
Nona
"They threw us to the ground, then put us back in the minivan and pushed more Georgians into the car. Three men with machine guns came with us, they told me to drive towards Tskhinvali."

Koba says that his armed captors were forcing their hostages to sing: "I love Ossetia".

Then, he said, there was a car crash and in the mayhem that followed, Koba, along with three other men, managed to escape.

He does not know what happened to the others.

Rising fear

The testimonies of those who have fled villages around South Ossetia are consistent, but with all roads blocked and the Russian military now in charge of the area, the scale of alleged reprisal killings and lootings is difficult to verify.

Nothing that [Saakashvili] could have possibly done can justify what Russia is doing in my country
Nini Giorgobiani
Georgian lawyer and activist

But despair and fear is, unmistakably, on the rise here. And so is the anger.

In Tbilisi Children's Hospital, seven-year-old Dito showed me the stitched shrapnel wounds that covered his back and his head.

"The explosion was very loud," he said. "My mum and my dad are also injured, they are in another hospital."

But in the corridor, Dito's aunt, Nona, took me aside. "He does not know it yet, but both of his parents are dead," she cried.

"His mother was seven-months pregnant," she added

Nona, like many refugees I have spoken to, blames President Mikhail Saakashvili for dragging the country into the war with Russia.

She is also angry, she says, because she believes the government has downplayed the real number of the dead.

"The government says only 120 people have been killed, but it is not true," she said.

"In Gori, I saw lorries full of bodies being delivered to the hospital every day. So many people have died, why is the government lying?"

'Unjustified'

As Nona spoke, the hospital staff joined in, arguing that what was happening in Georgia was the fault of Russia and not Mr Saakashvili.

Georgian refugees flee Gori (11/08/2008)

Most people in Georgia seem to agree - on Tuesday tens of thousands responded to Mr Saakashvili's calls and came to a rally in Tbilisi's main square.

Even the president's most fierce opponents have put political differences aside and announced their support for the government.

In Georgia, at least for now, national unity is winning over political infighting. Anger and astonishment over Russian air raids has overshadowed all the bickering.

"The Russians don't realise that when Russia's foreign minister says something against Georgia, they actually make Saakashvili more powerful and more popular," said Nini Giorgobiani, a young Georgian lawyer and the former leader of a student movement that helped to bring the young and Western-minded Mikhail Saakashvili to power.

"Since he was elected, I have disagreed with many of Saakashvili's policies, but nothing that he or the Georgian government could have possibly done can justify what Russia is doing in my country," she said.



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