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29 Aug, 2008 13:22

Death toll in South Ossetia still unknown – European watchdog

A leading European watchdog says the death toll from the conflict in South Ossetia is probably more than estimates suggest.

On a visit to Moscow, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner, met Russian officials to discuss what's being done to restore peace in South Ossetia.

While Hammarberg refused to confirm the estimates of over one and a half thousand dead provided by Russia, he said the number was likely to be significantly higher than the dozens mentioned by Human Rights Watch, as many of the dead were likely to be buried privately or remain missing.

“The figures given by such organisations as America’s Human Rights Watch are based on the number of identified bodies. Now the exact death toll is not known,” he said.

The Russian side estimates the human losses at about 2,000 people while the Georgian side claims the figure is much lower.

“But the whereabouts of many people is currently not known and it’s not clear whether they are dead or not. Many may be still hiding,” he said. “Moreover, not all burial places have been detected.”

He added he didn’t want to politicise the issue, as solving humanitarian problems is what will help stabilise the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone.

In his opinion for the countries involved, the military and political crisis has overshadowed a humanitarian catastrophe.

Hammarberg also said it is very important to have an unofficial Georgian-Ossetian mechanism for exchanging information about missing and captive people on both sides, while the international community must take part in collecting evidence of the cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Georgia-Ossetia conflict zone.

100,000 displaced

International organisations say nearly 100,000 have been displaced by the conflict. Some were forced out. Others fled, fearing war or reprisals.

Both Ossetians and Georgians remain in refugee camps outside the republic. Continuing international disagreements around the future status of South Ossetia, and its Georgian minority, have left some Georgians saying they are unsure they will ever return.

Hammarberg also spoke of a “policing vacuum” which meant citizens were still not be safe from looting, robbery and violence.

“The return is a right, but the right will not be real until they get assurances,” Hammarberg said.

Hammerberg helped orchestrate a final prisoner exchange between Tbilisi and Tskhinval on Wednesday. But the European official claims some prisoners may still be held by private citizens or militias.