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Satellite Images Document South Ossetia Destruction

Russian soldiers in the village of Zemo Nikozi, some 15 kilometers from Tskhinvali, on August 11.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Satellite images taken just after a battle between Georgia and Russia over the region of South Ossetia show fresh damage to villages continued for days after the initial clash, researchers and human rights activists have reported.

The images analyzed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Program do not show who was responsible for the damage -- Georgia, Russia, or other groups. But they may be evidence of war crimes, said Amnesty International, which commissioned the study.

"These images do not lie -- the additional destruction shown from August 10 to August 19 must be used to establish who had responsibility for protecting civilians from attacks by militia," Amnesty's Ariela Blatter said..

"The destruction of civilian infrastructure highlights the need for the international community to undertake an independent investigation of abuses during the conflict, with the complete support of all parties involved."

The crisis erupted in August when Georgia tried to forcibly retake the pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, which threw off Georgian rule in the 1990s.

Russia counterattacked into Georgia on August 7-8, overwhelming Georgian forces and drawing condemnation from the West. Russian forces pulled back into South Ossetia on October 8 as part of a cease-fire brokered by the European Union.

Georgia says Russia fully controlled Tskhinvali by August 10, but Russia has said Georgian troops inflicted most of the damage to civilian areas of South Ossetia.

Difficult Images

Lars Bromley, who heads the AAAS project to use satellites to monitor human rights abuses and conflict, said it was difficult to get images to verify the claims.

"We were able to use only a few commercial satellites. Anyone with a credit card can order imagery from them and the competition was heavy," Bromley said in a telephone interview.

"What it does is it probably sheds some light on how much damage was done to Tskhinvali and other surrounding villages...while the Russians were in control and while the Georgians were in control," Bromley added.

His group has documented conflicts in places such as Myanmar, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

The images, taken on August 10 and 19, show 424 civilian structures near Tskhinvali intact on August 10 but damaged by the 19th. In Tamarasheni 152 structures that were intact on August 10 seemed to have been damaged by the 19th.

Amnesty said the images support on-the-ground reports that more than 100 civilian houses in Tskhinvali were shelled during the initial Georgian bombardment.

"Amnesty International is particularly concerned by the reported formation in and around South Ossetia of irregular, locally organized armed groups able to act with impunity, increasing the potential dangers for civilians," the group said in a statement. It reported looting, burning, and beatings.

"To be sure, there was indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force on both sides of the conflict," Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch told a briefing earlier this week in Washington.

"However, the bulk of the looting and burning of property and attacks on civilians was conducted by South Ossetian militias and ordinary criminals who were allowed to operate in the areas controlled by Russian forces."