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Russian Troops Keep Grip On South Ossetia

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to South Ossetia, where the conflict erupted a week ago. The Russians say tens of thousands of people have fled this breakaway region of Georgia. The fighting has largely stopped there, but there are reports of looting and banditry. It's been difficult to get into South Ossetia. NPR's Gregory Feifer managed to do that by traveling with Russian forces. We spoke to him a few hours ago as he was standing alongside the road, and he said the Russian presence is heavy.

GREGORY FEIFER: There are many long convoys of trucks belching diesel fumes, clogging up the roads, there are soldiers all over the place.

(Soundbite of voices)

FEIFER: I'm sorry, I'm getting forced to get in...

(Soundbite of commotion)

FEIFER: I've just climbed into a military truck that's now taking us south into the capital of Tskhinvali.

MONTAGNE: To continue just what you were saying about the Russian presence there - of course you're climbing into a Russian truck...

FEIFER: Well, that's right. That's right. They control this area completely. There is a token presence of what appears to South Ossetian forces, but it's really Russian forces controlling this region.

MONTAGNE: Greg has now made it to South Ossetia's capital of Tskhinvali and he joins us from that city. And Greg, where are you at this moment and what are you seeing?

FEIFER: Well, I'm in the center of the city. Much of the city has been destroyed. I'm standing next to a pile of rubble that used to be a building. It has one wall still standing. Not the entire city has been destroyed. It's pockets. I was in one neighborhood about half an hour ago that was utterly destroyed; it was residential buildings, an old - an old residential neighborhood that had been utterly destroyed that had just been turned to rubble. There are a lot of disabled Georgian tanks on the streets. There are a lot of bullet-ridden buildings. I see Russian soldiers everywhere. There are Russian military trucks. There are Russian military trucks and there are Russian armored personnel carriers and tanks. There's a huge Russian presence here.

MONTAGNE: There have been conflicting reports of casualties over these last days. Both sides, Russia and Georgia, blaming each other for - in some cases claiming thousands of deaths. What have you learned about that?

FEIFER: Well, I've been asking every single person that I've spoken to. Most of these people have been hiding for days in basements while fierce fighting was going on. They say that they had a very terrifying, terrible time. It was very difficult, they had very little water and food. And they were afraid to go outside. But when I asked them, do you know anybody who died, only one person told me that - out of about 30 that I've spoken to - said they know somebody specifically who has died. In the central hospital the head doctor told me that there were only 300 wounded treated there, which leads me and other people, including Human Rights Watch researchers to believe that far fewer people were killed here than the Russians are claiming.

MONTAGNE: And what about human rights abuses?

FEIFER: Well, when I was driving down into Tskhinvali approaching the city, we drove through a series of Georgian villages. There was Georgian writing, the street signs, the stores had Georgian writing, and almost every other building has been torched, has been burnt, and they were completely empty of people. So that to me appears to be evidence that the Georgian settlements here were burned by local South Ossetians, and this is also what other reporters and human rights researchers are saying as well.

MONTAGNE: Is humanitarian aid reaching South Ossetia as far as you can see?

FEIFER: Well, people say that they've been given gas, natural gas canisters. One elderly woman told me that she was given two packets of macaroni. There is some aid coming in. But I don't see any evidence of a huge humanitarian operation. I see military trucks and I see tanks, and I do not see a big humanitarian operation other than an emergency services field hospital.

MONTAGNE: Greg, thanks very much.

FEIFER: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: And that was NPR's Greg Feifer speaking to us from the capital of South Ossetia, the city of Tskhinvali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.
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