28 August 2008 The overall situation in and around Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains tense, senior United Nations officials warned the Security Council today during a meeting on the latest developments in the Caucasus country.
Amid growing concern over the worsening humanitarian crisis in Georgia, especially concerning those escaping violence in the buffer zone between South Ossetia and the town of Gori, the Council heard reports from the UN’s political and peacekeeping departments.
Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber, Director of the Europe and Latin America Division of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), said the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) has witnessed large-scale Russian troop and military hardware withdrawal from Georgia to the Abkhaz-controlled side of the ceasefire line.
However, “Abkhaz forces continue to exercise control over the Ganmukhuri and Kourcha pockets north of the Inguri River, on the Georgian side of the ceasefire line,” he said.
Elizabeth Spehar, Director of the Americas and Europe division of the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), told the Council that Russian forces have set up 18 checkpoints between Gori and South Ossetia, which are an obstacle to the humanitarian relief effort and to people trying to return to their homes.
“The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has expressed concern over reports of new forcible displacement caused by marauding militia north of Gori near the boundary line with South Ossetia,” she said.
More than 1,200 people, from villages devastated by the fighting in the 26-kilometre-wide buffer zone between Gori and South Ossetia, had registered as internally displaced persons (IDPs) with authorities in Gori.
The new UNHCR office in Gori has erected some 100 family tents on in a football field on the outskirts of the town in an attempt to shelter the growing number of IDPs.
The IDPs included newly displaced people who have fled the violent militia in the buffer zone as well as people who escaped to Tbilisi after the conflict erupted on 8 August.
Some IDPs have tried returning to their buffer zone villages but say they were blocked by Russian checkpoints, advising them to not to continue due to widespread lawlessness surrounding the area. Others found their homes damaged and returned to Gori through fear of further attacks.
“Villagers from north of Gori and from South Ossetia can’t imagine returning any time soon, particularly where there are cluster munitions, unexploded ordinance, and landmines in their villages and homes,” the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said in a press release.
UNHCR reported that the new IDPs have arrived in Gori with tales of intimidation, beatings and looting by militia groups in the buffer zone villages. There have also been unconfirmed reports of civilian deaths resulting from the violence.
“Most of the villagers now escaping south to Gori said they had stayed put when the conflict broke out earlier this month because they were old and weak. The appearance this week of militias had made them change their minds, but they said they had to leave the most vulnerable behind,” the agency said.
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