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Russia launches new offensive

The World Today - Tuesday, 2 September , 2008 12:45:00

Reporter: Scott Bevan

ELEANOR HALL: Russia may be feeling international pressure over its military response to Georgia
and its recognition of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But in South Ossetia
itself, many locals love Russia and Moscow's only too happy to take journalists there to show that

Our Moscow correspondent, Scott Bevan, joined a Russian Government tour across the border into
South Ossetia, but it began on a sombre note in the shattered town of Beslan.

SCOTT BEVAN: In a field just outside the town of Beslan, all that is sown are tears; all that is
harvested is grief. For in this field is a cemetery for many of the 334 civilians killed in the
horrific siege of a local high school in 2004.

And on the fourth anniversary of an event that shocked the world and shattered a town, the people
of Beslan are gathering at the cemetery. Alexandra Smernova tends to the graves of her two
grand-daughters, aged 14 and 16.

They were among the 186 children killed in the siege, which ended in a shoot-out between the
Chechen hostage-takers and the Russian security forces. 'No, no no, time doesn't heal', Alexandra
Smernova says. 'I'm in agony all the time. My eyes are permanently full of tears.'

The Russian Government was heavily criticised for its handling of the siege, and for what many
consider its cold shoulder treatment of survivors and victims' families. In those tear-filled eyes
of hers, Alexandra Smernova also sees the Government as the bad guy in the Beslan tragedy, saying
it added to the pain for the hostages while the siege was on.

'They were sitting for three days without water in such a state, and no one from the government
came', she says. 'So I reckon the state is to blame, and no one else.' Yet for the fourth
anniversary of the siege, it's the Government that's actually brought about 60 journalists to the

The media tour makes a brief stopover in the southern Russian town on the way to another area
wracked with pain due to conflict: South Ossetia. The sounds of life are returning to the capital
Tskhinvali, where just over three weeks ago Georgian and Russian troops fought for control of the
city and for the breakaway region.

But the information and propaganda battle between the countries continues. Which is why Moscow is
holding our hands tightly for this tour through Southern Russia to South Ossetia.

The main attraction for the day is the breakaway province's leader, Eduard Kokoity. As he stands
before the bombed and blackened shell of the main government building, Mr Kokoity is full of praise
for Russia for sending in the troops against Georgia.

'I'd like to say that Russia and the Russian President through their timely actions saved the small
nation of South Ossetia from genocide', he proclaims. The self-styled president also thanks Moscow
for being the first country to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and another Georgian
rebel region, Abkhazia.

Despite the international condemnation of Russia for recognising the regions, Mr Kokoity believes
there's plenty more to come. 'We're confident that in the near future, countries in Europe, America
and Asia will recognise the Republic of South Ossetia, we have no doubt about that. The truth is on
our side', he's said.

Yet for all the talk of independence, perhaps Mr Kokoity sees South Ossetia as part of a bigger
country. He explains how he would soon sign a military treaty with Moscow, which is likely to
include inviting Russia to build bases in South Ossetia.

When asked if South Ossetia could become part of Russia, Mr Kokoity indicates that's possible. 'For
us, the first step is the consolidation of our independence, our statehood', he says. 'Then in the
second stage, if that's what the people want, we will strive for that.'

After the recent conflict, that's a prospect that doesn't seem to worry some in Tskhinvali. Zoya
Gazaeva says how grateful she is to Moscow. 'We're happy they helped us. If it hadn't been for
Russia, what would have become of us?' she says.

But the Russians couldn't save her home. We're standing before a shell that was her house. So Zoya
Gazaeva knows all too well like so many others in this city that before there's too much talk of
building a new nation, reconstruction has to also take place much closer to home.

This is Scott Bevan in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, for The World Today.