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Militias In Breakaway Georgia Region 'Running Wild'

TBILISI (Reuters) -- Russia must take immediate steps to stop South Ossetian militias "running wild" in a mainly Georgian-populated corner of the breakaway region, a human rights watchdog has said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it had documented attacks and harassment by militias against ethnic Georgians in Akhalgori and surrounding villages more than three months after Russia drove Georgian forces from South Ossetia in a five-day war.

"South Ossetian militias are running wild, attacking ethnic Georgians in Akhalgori," Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of the HRW office in Moscow, said in a press release.

"It is high time for Russia to step up to its responsibilities as an occupying power in South Ossetia and rein them in."

The Akhalgori district sits in the southeastern corner of South Ossetia, but is mainly populated by Georgians and continued to be administered by Tbilisi after the rest of South Ossetia threw off Georgian rule in the early 1990s.

Russian and South Ossetian forces pushed into the district after the August war, when Russia intervened in its ex-Soviet neighbor to halt a Georgian military bid to retake pro-Russian South Ossetia.

Russia and Georgia have traded accusations of human rights abuses since the war.

Tbilisi says several thousand Georgians have fled Akhalgori. Journalists are barred from entering the district from the Georgian side of the de facto border.

In an incident documented by HRW, an elderly Georgian man was severely beaten by militiamen when he tried to stop them taking his sheep. He died in a hospital in Tbilisi, and when he was buried near Akhalgori, armed militiamen turned up at the funeral and harassed the mourners.

Hospital workers said they had treated an 83-year-old man after he was beaten by four Ossetians in camouflage uniform because he had a photograph of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on the wall of his home.

HRW researchers said rumors that Russian forces might close the de facto border to the local population had caused panic, and many residents were leaving.

Moscow said it intervened in August after Georgia began shelling the rebel capital, Tskhinvali, and Tskhinvali residents have described an indiscriminate assault on the town by Georgian forces that included hitting civilian targets.

The homes of hundreds of ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia and inside the Russian-imposed buffer zone south of the rebel region were razed or looted, allegedly by militiamen, after Russian forces drove back the Georgian military.