TBILISI, Georgia – Russian troops remaining in Georgian territory are effectively preventing Georgians from returning to their homes, a U.N. representative said Saturday.
Melita Sunjic, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees in Georgia, said that although it was not clear if Russian soldiers were actually preventing refugees from returning, the warnings by the troops effectively block them.
“If they say ‘we can’t guarantee your safety,’ you don’t go,” she said.
Some 2,000 refugees are at UNHCR camps in Gori, and possibly thousands of others are in the region, hoping to return to villages that are in the so-called “security zones” that Russia has claimed for itself on Georgian territory.
The zones are near the border with separatist South Ossetia, the disputed province at the heart of the conflict that has ruined Georgia-Russia ties and caused the biggest crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Fighting broke out Aug. 7 after Georgian forces launched a barrage on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, hoping to retake control of the province. Russian forces poured in, pushed the Georgians out in a matter of days and then drove deep into Georgia proper.
Under a European Union-brokered cease-fire, both sides were to return their forces to pre-war positions, but Russia has interpreted one of the agreement’s clauses as allowing it to set up 4-mile deep security zones, which are now marked by Russian checkpoints.
Refugees coming into Georgia from those zones say they are being terrorized, beaten and robbed by South Ossetians.
Georgia has severed diplomatic ties with Moscow to protest the presence of Russian troops on its territory, saying as the West does that Russia is in violation of the EU agreement.