News & Current Affairs

July 15, 2009

Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

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Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

Destroyed house in Gaza

Soldiers are quoted saying they opened fire at any “suspect places”

A human rights group founded by Israeli veterans has collected what it says are damning testimonies from soldiers who took part in the offensive in January against Hamas fighters in Gaza. \

Standing by the ruins of his home in Gaza, Majdi Abed Rabbo explained how Israeli troops had used him as a human shield.

“The Israeli soldiers handcuffed me and pointed the gun at my neck,” he said. “They controlled every step.”

In this manner, Mr Abed Rabbo said, he was forced to go in ahead of Israeli soldiers as they cleared houses containing Palestinian gunmen.

This same incident was described by one of the Israeli soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence.

Majdi Abed Rabbo

Israel’s military is now looking into Majdi Abed Rabbo’s claims

“A Palestinian neighbour is brought in,” he says. “It was procedure. The soldier places his gun barrel on the civilian’s shoulder.”

If true, that was a clear breach of the international laws of war – which say soldiers have a duty of care to non-combatants – and of Israeli law.

The Israeli Supreme Court outlawed the so-called “neighbour policy”, of using Palestinians to shield advancing troops, in 2005.

Until now, the Israeli army always had a ready answer to allegations that war crimes were committed during its offensive in Gaza.

Such claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda.

Now, though, the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

Testimonies collected

The common thread in the almost 30 testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties, whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

Writing the report’s introduction, the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard says: “All the witnesses agreed that they received a particular order repeatedly, in a way that did not leave much room for doubt, to do everything, everything, so that they – the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers – would not be harmed.

“The soldiers tell in their testimonies how this unwritten message, which came from brigade, battalion, and company commanders in morale-building conversations before entering Gaza, translated into zero patience for the life of enemy civilians.”

Israeli troops return from Gaza 19.1.09

Israel denies its soldiers broke the laws of war

The lawyer adds: “Violations of the laws of war are liable to be war crimes.”

Here are just a few quotes which give a flavour of the soldiers’ testimony. The accumulation of detail is convincing and, in the eyes of Israel’s critics, damning.

“Things are happening in his battalion of which he (the commander) has no idea. There are people who deserve to go to jail…

“When your company commander and battalion commander tell you, ‘Go on, fire!’ the soldiers will not hold back. They are waiting for this day, the fun of shooting and feeling all that power in your hands…

“Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don’t see a terrorist there? Fire at the window. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents.”

Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich dismissed the testimonies as anonymous hearsay, designed to embarrass the army rather than lead to serious investigations.

She questioned why Breaking the Silence had not handed over its findings earlier, before the media were informed.

“We are investigating many of the requests from NGOs and other groups,” she said. “But when you have a report that is based on hearsay, with no facts whatsoever, we can’t do anything with it.”

In the past, says the Israeli military, some allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza have turned out to be second or third-hand accounts, the result of soldiers recycling rumours in the battalion rather than describing what they themselves witnessed.

Credible record

But Breaking the Silence has a long – and to many, credible – record of getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the Army.

The group is funded by the British, Dutch and Spanish governments, as well as the EU.

It says the testimony is anonymous because of orders to Israeli soldiers not to speak out publicly.

Some of the collected testimony is highly specific.

In the case of Majdi Abed Rabbo, the Israeli military police have now opened an investigation, lending at least some credibility to the soldier who said the “neighbour policy” was in widespread use.

The military maintains it went to extraordinary lengths to ensure civilians were not harmed in Gaza.

The soldiers’ testimony does describe in detail how leaflets were distributed in areas they were about to enter – warning people to leave.

But it is what happened after that, says Breaking the Silence, which calls into question the morality of the Israeli army’s actions.

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November 12, 2008

UN appeals for DR Congo back-up

UN appeals for DR Congo back-up

Congolese government soldiers pass displaced people as they return from the front near Goma on Tuesday 11 November 2008

Congolese troops have faced fresh allegations of abuses

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made a fresh plea for 3,000 more peacekeepers to be sent to the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In New York, Mr Ban also called for a ceasefire so aid workers could urgently help “at least 100,000 refugees” cut off in rebel-held areas near Goma.

A 17,000-strong UN force in Congo has been unable to stop the fighting or halt the rebel advance.

The UN Security Council is considering the call for reinforcements.

The UN head of UN peacekeeping operations, Alain Le Roy, said there were currently only 10 UN soldiers for every 10,000 inhabitants in eastern DR Congo.

Rebel administration

He said this was not enough to protect the population from violence perpetrated by rebel groups and the Congolese army.

A displaced woman next to a UN armoured vehicle near Goma on Tuesday 11 November 2008

The UN presence in DR Congo is its largest mission in the world

Recent fighting between government and rebel troops has displaced a quarter of a million people in the strife-torn region around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

Earlier, the rebel Congolese general, Laurent Nkunda, said he had formed an alternative administration in the area of eastern Congo that he controls.

In what observers say is his latest direct challenge to the central government, 12 ministers will take responsibility for a range of functions including police and security.

The move appears to be pure propaganda.

‘Looting and raping’

Our correspondent says it may annoy the government but is likely to be insignificant unless the rebels follow it up with further military action.

Displaced people tap into a supply of water aid nearby the Nyiragongo volcano in Kibati

Meanwhile government troops have faced fresh accusations that they have been ransacking villages and raping civilians.

UN spokesman Lt-Col Jean Paul Dietrich said looting began around Kanyabayonga, 100 km (60 miles) north of Goma, on Monday afternoon and continued through the night.

He said UN peacekeepers and the Congolese army had been trying to intervene.

Rebel leader Gen Nkunda claims to be fighting to protect his Tutsi community from attacks by Rwandan Hutu rebels, who fled to DR Congo after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

On Monday, he threatened to take over the whole country if President Joseph Kabila’s government continued in its refusal to negotiate with him.

FORCES AROUND GOMA
CNDP: Gen Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels – 6,000 fighters
FDLR: Rwandan Hutus – 6,000-7,000
Mai Mai: pro-government militia – 3,500
Monuc: UN peacekeepers – 1,000 in Goma, 6,000 in North Kivu (17,000 nationwide)
DRC army – 90,000 (nationwide)
Source: UN, military experts

But a Congolese official said the government was still unwilling to talk to the rebel leader and accused him of war crimes.

The UN has accused both sides of war crimes during the latest violence.

Mr Kabila was elected president in 2006 in polls that were backed by the UN, and which international observers generally declared to be fair.

As in the four-year war that began in DR Congo in 1998, the recent fighting has threatened to draw in neighbouring countries.

Map of eastern DR Congo


What is your reaction to the situation in Congo? Can this region ever find peace? Tell us your thoughts

September 18, 2008

Karadzic’s broken Bosnia remains

Karadzic’s broken Bosnia remains

In the old days we would trot along to see Radovan Karadzic often. He would see us at the drop of a hat.

He was affable, jocular, hugely confident that what he was doing was right.

From time to time he would roll out his maps. There were lines separating the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) in Bosnia from the rest.

There was a line through the heart of Sarajevo – these quarters for the Muslims, those for the Serbs.

The term “ethnic cleansing” was not invented by the foreign journalists he courted so warmly. It was how his own followers described what they were doing.

Radovan Karadzic in 1993

Radovan Karadzic would freely outline his plans to journalists

Republika Srpska is the land that Radovan built. Ethnic cleansing was the means by which he achieved it.Go back there today and you see, starkly, that while the ideologues and architects of the policy are, for the most part, behind bars, the foot soldiers of ethnic cleaning are still at large.

They are still, in many cases, at their desks in the town halls and police stations across Bosnia.

Mirsad Tokaca runs Bosnia’s Research and Documentation Center.

It collates evidence of crimes committed during the 45-month war.

He believes there are between 3,000 and 5,000 war criminals who should face prosecution.

The Hague tribunal has restricted itself to a few dozen “big fish” and has said it will issue no more indictments.

Bosnia’s own state-wide war crimes court came into existence three years ago and has so far brought prosecutions against about a hundred people.

The local courts are supposed to prosecute local war criminals. They do not.

Where it started

Bijeljina, in north-eastern Bosnia, is where it all started.

Ten times they took me outside and told me they were going to kill me – it was a terrible experience
Jusuf Trbic
Bosnian Muslim survivor

On 31 March 1992, a paramilitary unit led by the feared Zeljko Raznatovic – known as Arkan – crossed the river from Serbia and unleashed a reign of terror.

Civilians were shot dead in the street. Prominent Muslims were rounded up, and some of them murdered.

The Muslim (Bosniak) population – tens of thousands of people – was driven out.

Eighteen years on, only a small proportion of those who were expelled have gone back, despite the legal right to do so.

Saalem Corbo is one of the returnees. He remembers how Arkan’s men rampaged through the town. And, he says, they had local help.

Mirko Blagojevic, a Bijeljina Serb and head of the Serbian Radical Party in the town, formed and led his own paramilitary unit, according to evidence presented to the Hague tribunal.

“He knew where the prominent Muslims in the town lived,” says Mr Corbo.

“He led Arkan’s troops to their houses so that they could be rounded up. Few of them survived.”

Survivor

Jusuf Trbic is one who did survive.

“Mirko Blagojevic came to my father-in-law’s house at 1600 on 1 April,” he told me.

“He was with Arkan’s men. They took me to Arkan’s headquarters and told me I had to make an announcement on local radio instructing all the Muslims to surrender their weapons.

“But I didn’t know anything about weapons. They held me all night and beat me.

“Ten times they took me outside and told me they were going to kill me. It was a terrible experience.”

We live with the former war criminals, we see them every day in the streets
Branko Todorovic
Helsinki Committee for Human Rights

Mirko Blagojevic is not a convicted war criminal. No case has ever been brought against him, far less proven.

He is not hard to find. He has enjoyed a long career as an elected politician in the years since the war ended.

He emphatically denied co-operating with Arkan’s men. He denied all the allegations made by Mr Corbo and Mr Trbic.

Branko Todorovic runs the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bijeljina.

He said only two war crimes trials had been brought by local prosecutors since the war ended – and both of these were against Muslims who had co-operated with Serb guards in a concentration camp.

Karadzic and Arkan in Bijeljina, 1995

Arkan salutes troops in Bijeljina, where he unleashed terror in 1992

The Bijeljina courts, by the way, have jurisdiction over the Srebrenica area, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered in a few days in July 1995.

“We live with the former war criminals, we see them every day in the streets,” says Mr Todorovic.

Why does it matter?

The ethnic partition of Bosnia endures. The Dayton agreement of 1995 ended the war. But it divided Bosnia into two, ethnically defined entities – Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation.

The leaders of Republika Srpska long ago abandoned their original dream of union with Serbia.

They have accepted some of the symbols of Bosnian statehood – a common currency, a shared passport, a flag.

Survivors of the Srebrenica massacre and their relatives watched the hearing

Mr Karadzic’s hearings at The Hague have been broadcast on TV

The one truly successful example of reintegration is – ironically – in the army, where former Muslim, Serb and Croat enemies now serve alongside each other.Beyond that, there is little that is truly Bosnian.

The entities, not the Bosnian state, have real executive power.

The Bosnian state barely functions. It is incapable of carrying out the reforms that Bosnia desperately needs.

And so as Croatia and Serbia continue their respective journeys to the European mainstream – to EU and possibly Nato membership – Bosnia, still broken, still paralysed, is being left behind, and is in danger of sinking further into corruption, poverty and organised crime.

Look at Republika Srpska today and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Radovan Karadzic got much of what he set out to get.

September 17, 2008

Karadzic faces fresh indictment

Karadzic faces fresh indictment

 Radovan Karadzic at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague on 17 September

Mr Karadzic has said the court is biased against him

UN war crimes prosecutors at The Hague are due to file a revised indictment against Bosnian Serb ex-leader Radovan Karadzic by Monday.

The announcement was made during a hearing which ended without setting a date for Mr Karadzic’s trial. A new hearing could be held within a month.

Mr Karadzic faces 11 counts relating to the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s.

A not-guilty plea to all charges was entered on his behalf after he refused to enter any plea himself.

Mr Karadzic was arrested in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, in July after 13 years on the run and living under a false name.

The charges against Mr Karadzic include what is regarded as Europe’s worst massacre since World War II – the killing of up to 8,000 men and youths in the enclave of Srebrenica.

Addressing the tribunal, prosecutor Alan Tieger said the revised indictment would be filed by Monday, without giving details.

‘Intimidation’

At the hearing on Thursday, Judge Iain Bonomy said a new pre-trial “status conference” – or hearing to set a trial date – would be held within a month.

THE EXISTING INDICTMENT
Eleven counts of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocities
Charged over shelling Sarajevo during the city’s siege, in which some 12,000 civilians died
Allegedly organized the massacre of up to 8,000 Bosniak men and youths in Srebrenica
Targeted Bosniak and Croat political leaders, intellectuals and professionals
Unlawfully deported and transferred civilians because of national or religious identity
Destroyed homes, businesses and sacred sites

Mr Karadzic confirmed that he planned to conduct his own defense, which he said he was doing on behalf of Serbs who had suffered in the former Yugoslavia, and for the leaders of small states who could also find themselves in court in future.

He also said again that he doubted he could get a fair trial, and complained of intimidation by court officials.

He asked for permission to put together a legal team to help him, saying at least one of them should be present in court at all times.

“I’m not prepared to be passive and to have other people decide on matters that concern me,” he said.

‘Nato court’

Mr Karadzic also repeated his argument that the trial was illegal because, he said, the terms of a deal made with former US peace envoy Richard Holbrooke had offered him immunity from prosecution.

A Muslim woman grieves beside the coffins of disinterred Srebrenica victims, July 2008

The remains of those killed at Srebrenica continue to be found

The claims have been ridiculed by Mr Holbrooke.

At the 29 August hearing, Judge Bonomy entered the plea of not guilty in accordance with tribunal rules.

The current indictment includes genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The alleged crimes include Mr Karadzic’s involvement in an attempt to destroy in whole or in part the Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) and Bosnian Croat ethnic groups.

That included the killings at Srebrenica and the shelling of Sarajevo, killing and terrorizing the city’s civilians.

The indictment says Mr Karadzic knew about the crimes that were being committed by Bosnian Serb forces, but failed to take action to prevent them.

August 21, 2008

Uncovering truth about Georgia conflict

Uncovering truth about Georgia conflict

Courtesy BBC NEWS

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

As accusations of indiscriminate violence, murder and genocide are hurled between Russia and Georgia over the South Ossetia conflict, human rights investigators are painstakingly trying to establish the facts on the ground.

A Georgian woman stands near a damaged apartment block in Gori, Georgia

Residential buildings were hit during the conflict

Researchers suggest both sides may have violated the codes of war – using violence that was either disproportionate or indiscriminate, or both – claims that the International Criminal Court is currently investigating.

Russian prosecutors have announced they are opening criminal cases into the deaths of 133 civilians who they say were killed by Georgian forces.

Initially, however, Russia suggested more than 1,500 people had died in the conflict.

Last week, Georgia filed a lawsuit against Russia at the International Court of Justice, based at The Hague, alleging the country had attempted to ethnically cleanse Georgians from the breakaway regions.

Uncovering the facts – even of very recent history – becomes a battle in itself when people are displaced and desperate.

“Gathering comprehensive data about the dead from civilians is a time-consuming task,” Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, told BBC News.

“We have to cross-check data and check that people are not misidentified or miscounted.”

Shifting status

Neighbors who take up arms during a conflict, for example, shift status, becoming combatants rather than civilians, which can confuse calculations of civilian death tolls.

Russian tanks in South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

Russian forces have been accused of using cluster bombs

“We have to make sure there is no double-counting – if a body is moved, we have to be careful not to count it twice – maybe it is counted once in the village itself and then it could be counted again in the city morgue,” Ms Denber said.

“To get really accurate figures you would really have to go to every single village.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – which has just gained access to South Ossetia – says it hopes to uncover the truth by remaining neutral and only revealing what its told – by survivors, eyewitnesses and relatives – to relevant authorities.

“The work of the ICRC is totally confidential,” spokeswoman Jessica Barry explained from the Georgian capital, Tblisi.

“We do take allegations of arrests, of people missing or reported dead. We can also offer our services to the authorities for the transfer of mortal remains.

“All the work we do is gathering confidential information which we share with the authorities with the aim of finding out the location of loved ones for the civilian population.”

War of words

The ferocity of the conflict on the ground was echoed in the way both Russian and Georgian officials conducted a media war, making ever graver accusations against each other, competing for television airtime and giving spiralling civilian death tolls.

A woman walks past propaganda poster depicting Russian aggression

The war has been played out both in the media and on the ground

All of which muddies the waters when trying to establish if human rights and international laws have been violated.

“There has been a lot of controversy about the Russian figures,” says HRW’s Rachel Denber.

“When that figure came out – of 1,500 dead – it wasn’t very helpful, it didn’t provide any sourcing or methodology, there were no details about how the figure was calculated. We certainly can’t confirm it.”

“The problem here is that when Russia puts out a figure like that it does two things – it distracts attention from where there are violations and from the real scale of what is happening.”

The organization puts the civilian death toll in the dozens, rather than the hundreds.

Responsibility to protect

As well as multiple rocket launchers mounted on four-wheel drives, known as Grads, campaigners say cluster munitions – which can contain hundreds of smaller bomblets – were used during the conflict. Both these weapons are intrinsically indiscriminate, they say.

Disproportionate attacks are prohibited […] if there is likely to be civilian damage excessive in relation to the expected military gain, you don’t fire
Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch

“If you have a military objective then the Grad rocket is not a targeted weapon, civilians are going to get hit and that is exactly what happened, and happened on a significant scale. The proximity was such that it was indiscriminate,” Ms Denber said.

She cited a reported case in which Russian forces dropped bombs on a convoy of passenger cars fleeing Georgia’s Gori district, and another in which Georgian soldiers pursued armed South Ossetian militias using tanks, driving and firing through a residential neighborhood.

“The rule is that disproportionate attacks are prohibited. In other words, if you have your eye on a military target, and there is likely to be civilian damage excessive in relation to the expected military gain, you don’t fire,” Ms Denber said.

Although the fighting has now stopped, violations continue, she says, with Russian forces failing to protect civilians in areas of Georgia and South Ossetia that they control – a key part of the international law governing behavior during war.

“We have numerous stories of Ossetian forces roving around ethnic Georgian villages – running around, looting homes, torching them,” she said.

“We are looking into other accounts of violence, of people being robbed at gunpoint. These are areas that Russian forces have control over – it is their responsibility to protect them.”

August 17, 2008

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian tank in Georgia (16 August 2008)

Moscow’s troops continue to operate deep inside the Caucasus republic

The Russian commander of front line forces in Georgia has told that a gradual withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia is under way.

Maj Gen Vyacheslav Borisov said he had given the order for Russian soldiers to be replaced by peacekeepers.

Russian forces in position 35km (22 miles) from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on the road to Gori, close to South Ossetia.

Russia said it did not have a timetable for a full withdrawal from Gori.

Russia still controls almost all of the main arterial highway running east-west through Georgia, and the main towns along the route.

Russia’s claimed redeployment comes a day after Moscow signed a French-brokered peace plan to end the crisis.

Conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to retake its Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia.

It led to a massive counter-offensive by Russia, with Russia moving deeper into Georgian territory.

The US has demanded Russian troops pull out, but Moscow says it will only withdraw from Georgian territory once extra security measures are in place.

International attention

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who mediated the peace deal on behalf of the European Union, has warned Moscow that the ceasefire bars its forces from any “major urban area” in Georgia.

However, in a letter addressed to his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili, Mr Sarkozy said Russian troops did have the right to patrol “a few kilometres” beyond the conflict zone in South Ossetia.

But he underlined that clauses in the agreement permitting Russia to implement additional security measures “in no way limit or put in danger the freedom of movement and travel along the road and rail axes of Georgia” and could not be applied in any towns or cities.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

“I am particularly thinking of the city of Gori,” he said, which is the largest town close to the South Ossetia border.

There is a much reduced Russian military presence in the town compared with Saturday – though Russian soldiers still control the town’s key entry and exit points.

He says that even if Russian peacekeepers replace soldiers, local residents say it will not make much difference.

Meanwhile, US President George W Bush has reiterated his staunch support for ally Georgia.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is due to hold talks with Mr Saakashvili in Tbilisi later on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has called on the Russian authorities to immediately take steps to end attacks by South Ossetian militias on ethnic Georgians in Gori and to allow vital humanitarian aid to reach vulnerable civilians.

“The Russian military has effective control of the Gori region, making it responsible for the security and well-being of all people living there,” said Rachel Denber, HRW’s Europe deputy director.

Russian control

The BBC’s Richard Galpin, who has spent the past two days traveling from the Black Sea port of Poti to Tbilisi, says Georgian forces seem to be surrendering control of the highway to the Russians.

Georgian refugee in Tbilisi (16 August 2008)

The UN puts the number of those displaced in the conflict at 118,000

In the western town of Senaki, our correspondent saw large numbers of Russian troops moving around on Saturday.

Further east in Zestafoni, he witnessed the panic of local residents as the word spread that the Russian army was approaching.

Cars sped away from roadblocks set up by the Georgian police, the drivers realizing their hopes of reaching Tbilisi had been dashed.

When the Russians arrived, they stayed only a few minutes after apparently being told there was no military base to take over.

Our correspondent says he then followed the Russian troops as they entered the central town of Khashuri, where they were given an escort by the local police.

He spoke to one Russian soldier who said he believed their final destination would be the Georgian capital, although the Kremlin flatly denied this. Another soldier said he expected to be in Georgia for a year.

Georgia has meanwhile accused pro-Russian Abkhaz separatist fighters of taking over 13 villages and a hydroelectric power plant. There has so far been no independent confirmation.

Security steps

Among the six points in the ceasefire deal, both sides agreed to pull back their forces to their positions before hostilities began on 7 August.

Diplomats have said that the UN Security Council is expected to vote later on Sunday on a draft resolution formalising the ceasefire agreement.

President Bush has said Mr Medvedev’s signing of the truce is “hopeful”, but that there can be no question that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will remain within Georgian borders, which are internationally recognised.

Reports suggest Mr Saakashvili only reluctantly agreed to another of the plan’s clauses – international talks about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Map of region


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August 14, 2008

Russia begins Georgia handover

Russia begins Georgia handover

Russian soldier near Gori, 13 August 2008

Russia insists its troops remain in Georgia for security purposes only

Russian troops have begun handing over control of the area around the town of Gori to Georgian security forces.

But a Russian general in the area said Moscow’s troops would remain nearby for several days to remove weaponry and help restore law and order in Gori.

Overnight the US secretary of state urged Moscow to meet its own pledge to pull troops out of Georgia altogether.

Georgia attacked the rebel region of South Ossetia from Gori a week ago and the town has remained a key flash point.

Russian troops occupied the town after they pushed Georgian forces out of South Ossetia, sparking a mass retreat from the city by Georgian troops and civilians.

Gori has also come under air attack, with reports of Russian planes bombing the town after Moscow declared an end to its military operation on Tuesday.

And Russia’s continued deployment of troops in Gori raised concerns that the Kremlin would not make a quick withdrawal from Georgian territory, despite agreeing to a European peace plan.

Safety ‘improved’

Moscow insists that the purpose of its continuing presence in Georgia proper is to hand over security to the Georgian police and to remove abandoned weapons and ammunition.

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

Local residents reported feeling safe and secure on Wednesday night, our correspondent says, with Russian troops clearly in charge of the town.

The Russian general co-ordinating the return of Georgian police and security forces to Gori urged residents – many of whom left town as the Georgian army retreated on Monday – to return to their homes and re-open their shops, our correspondent adds.

Russian troops were allowing armed Georgian police back into the town, and would not leave until order is restored, Gen Vyacheslav Borisov said.

US steadfast

The Georgian government says that 175 people, mainly civilians, were killed during the conflict with Russia and South Ossetian separatist forces.

Russia, which says that 74 of its troops were killed, reports that more than 2,000 people died in South Ossetia, the vast majority civilians allegedly killed in the Georgian attack.

While none of the casualty figures have been verified independently, the UN refugee agency estimates that some 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, both from South Ossetia and Georgia proper.

Both sides have accused each other of committing atrocities during the conflict, although little conclusive evidence has been found.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said on Wednesday night Russia faced international “isolation” if it refused to respect the truce, brokered by French and current EU President Nicolas Sarkozy.

She spoke hours after Russian tanks were seen moving out of Gori on the main road to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Amid widespread concern the armored column eventually turned off the main road and troops began work to destroy or disable Georgian army bases.

“We expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country,” Ms Rice said later in Washington, before leaving on a diplomatic mission to France and Georgia.

There was, she said, a “very strong, growing sense that Russia is not behaving like the kind of international partner that it has said that it wants to be”.

And the US special envoy to the region, Matthew Bryza, told the BBC that the outbreak of violence in the Caucasus strengthened Georgia’s case to join the Nato alliance.

“Russia, a country with 30 times the population [of Georgia] decided to roll into its much smaller neighbour and tried to roll over it. It failed to roll over Georgia, but it would never have even thought of doing this if Georgia were already a member of Nato,” he said.

Map of region

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