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For South Ossetians, Bitterness Follows Attacks

"I don't remember anything," he said, visibly shaking. "All the walls collapsed."

The scale of the destruction is undeniable; some streets summon iconic images of Stalingrad during World War II or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was leveled in two wars between Russian and Chechen separatists.

But the number of dead remains in dispute. Mikhail Minsayev, the minister of interior in the separatist South Ossetian government, told reporters Saturday that as many as 2,100 people had been killed. When challenged on that figure by reporters, who cited statements by medical workers and human rights groups that there was no evidence of such a high death toll, he said people quickly buried the dead in their yards or took the bodies to North Ossetia in Russia for burial.

In conversations here, everyone interviewed said they had lost either no family members or one person. But those were interviews with people whose cellars had held. Many clearly had not.

Traveling here from the Georgian city of Gori and out to the Roki Tunnel that connects with Russia, the revenge taken by some of the inhabitants of South Ossetia was visible in the Georgian fields set on fire and the blackened, abandoned homes in Georgian villages north of Tskhinvali. Two homes in those Georgian villages were ablaze Saturday night.

Russian military officials blamed the destruction on marauding South Ossetian militias and said they are attempting to restore order.

The headquarters of Russian peacekeepers in Tskhinvali was destroyed. The barracks where 500 soldiers slept took direct hits from tank fire. A destroyed Russian tank sits by the barracks wall. The base's headquarters, dining hall and recreation center are ruined.

Vladimir Ivanov, deputy commander of the Russian peacekeeping force that was stationed here, said that 15 Russian peacekeepers were killed during the war and that many more were wounded.

Russian peacekeepers have been in South Ossetia since the early 1990s, when a cease-fire was declared after an earlier conflict. This breakaway province of Georgia has since had de facto independence from the central authorities in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

Georgian officials accused the Russian peacekeeping force of backing the South Ossetian separatists and failing to rein in their attacks on Georgian villages and territory in Georgia proper.

The war has poisoned people here against any future connection with Georgia although the province remains within Georgia's internationally recognized borders.

"Georgia is finished here; they are never coming back," Bestaev said. "We cannot live without Russia. We must become part of Russia, because we can't handle the problem independently."

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