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Europe

Georgia, Russia Sever Ties as Rights Groups Report on Violations

Georgia and Russia cut direct diplomatic ties in a tit-for-tat political feud. The move came as human rights bodies called attention to a potential humanitarian disaster and evidence of ethnic violence during the war.

A woman is seen with a cart of her belongings, in a street in Tskhinvali, capital of Georgian breakaway enclave of South Ossetia

Human rights groups say the South Ossetian capital was torched and thousands displaced

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations in the Caucasus, Georgia will withdraw its diplomats from Moscow, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said Friday, Aug. 29.

"Within the coming days, Georgia will withdraw all diplomats from its embassy in Moscow," the head of the foreign ministry's press department, Khatuna Iosava told reporters. "Consular relations with the Russian Federation will be maintained. It is a downgrade of diplomatic relations, not a complete cut."

Georgia had already pulled all but two of its diplomats from its embassy in Moscow earlier in the week. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians live in Russia and cutting diplomatic ties would have left them without consular services, a scenario they now face.

The move prompted the Russians to claim they had no other choice but to follow suit and close their consulate in Tbilisi, the state news agency RIA Novosti reported. Officials in Moscow were quoted as saying that the Georgian move was unhelpful and would not ease the crisis between the two countries caused by the war earlier this month.

"We regret this step from the Georgian side," Russian foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said, quoted by Interfax news agency. "It will not assist our bilateral relations."

Georgia's parliament on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution that "orders the executive power to cut diplomatic ties with the Russian Federation" because of Russia's "occupation of Georgian territory."

It also declared all Russian troops, including those deemed peacekeepers by Moscow, to be part of occupying armed forces.

Moscow withdrew the bulk of its forces from Georgia last week under a French-brokered cease-fire agreement, but thousands of Russian troops remain deployed in the two rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and in a "buffer zone" around them.

EU observers to report on broken cease-fire agreement

A column of Russian troops moves from Tskhinvali back to Russia near the village of Dzhava, South Ossetia

Some Russian troops have pulled out of Georgia but those which remain have dug in

However, EU fact finders are expected to report back to the European Union that Russia is still in violation of the cease-fire deal.

Anne-Marie Lizin, a Belgian senator and part of a group responsible for presenting a report to Kouchner ahead of Monday's EU summit, told journalists that Russian "peacekeepers" had expanded the buffer zone around the disputed South Ossetia region by at least 15 kilometers (nine miles).

"We have seen them as peacekeepers in not the normal places," she said. "They are trying to create a de facto situation quickly before Monday's summit."

Another member of the delegation, parliament deputy Jean-Louis Crucke, said the Russian presence seemed incompatible with peacekeeping.

"It's not a control, not a checkpoint -- it's a camp," he said.

Lizin said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev credibility was on the line after having signed a peace plan requiring Russian and Georgian forces to pull back to positions held before the fighting earlier this month.

The parliamentarians said they would recommend the EU take measures to support Georgia.

"We are trying to find positive proposals for Georgia and visa-free travel is one of these," said Lizin, who is also vice president of the OSCE's parliamentary assembly.

Humanitarian crisis on the brink of unfolding

Residents walk past destroyed buildings in Tskhinvali, in the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia

Thousands have been displaced by the short war

While feuding diplomats on both sides argued over the semantics of the fallout from the brief but bloody conflict, a European human rights envoy said on Friday that the war had provided a cover for rampant looting and that a humanitarian disaster could be unfolding behind the rhetoric and disagreements.

The fighting had displaced thousands of civilians, with ethnic Ossetians fleeing to Russia and ethnic Georgians fleeing from South Ossetia, said Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner.

He added that Russia's recognition of Georgia's rebel regions as independent states this week was also "complicating humanitarian efforts and the (refugees') right to return".

"Have political moves disturbed human rights efforts? The answer is 'yes,'" Hammarberg said at a news conference in Moscow. "I felt throughout the mission that human rights issues have been secondary to other considerations."

He added that authorities must calm conditions on the ground so people in hiding and those who fled their homes would feel safe returning.

"There are refugees and displaced people on both sides in the tens of thousands," Hammarberg said. "My main mission is for all displaced people to have the right to return to where they lived before the conflict."

Hammarberg said his other main concern was the lawlessness that had gripped some areas on the conflict zone since the cessation of hostilities.

"There is what I call a policing vacuum, not least around Tskhinvali and Gori, which makes it possible for thugs to roam the streets and use this disruption for bad purposes," he said.

Images of targeted ethnic violence

A Sotuh Ossetian woman stands amid ruins in the destroyed city of Tskhinvali

Satellite images are not needed to see the devastation

In addition, Human Rights Watch revealed that destruction in villages around Tskhinvali was caused by intentional burning -- not armed combat.

Satellite images obtained by the United Nations and reports from researchers show that ethnic Georgian villages inside South Ossetia were deliberately torched, Human Rights Watch said.

"Human Rights Watch researchers personally witnessed Ossetian militias looting and burning down ethnic Georgian villages during their research in the area," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "These satellite images indicate just how widespread the torching of these villages has been in the last two weeks."

Hammarberg, who helped broker the handover of 89 prisoners by South Ossetian and Georgian authorities earlier this week, said the fact that his intervention was required showed the complete lack of mutual trust that had to be addressed.

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