Red Cross Enters South Ossetia

ReutersKellenberger talking to reporters near a map of Georgia on Wednesday.
GENEVA -- The Red Cross on Wednesday moved the first international relief workers into South Ossetia since fighting broke out in the breakaway Georgian province nearly two weeks ago, the agency's top official said.

A total of 17 relief workers traveled by convoy to South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, after the International Committee of the Red Cross received approval from South Ossetian authorities, ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger said.

"We are the first ones who can now go to South Ossetia," he said.

Kellenberger, who had just returned from a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a visit to the region, said he wanted to be sure the ICRC was wanted in South Ossetia and would have adequate security guarantees.

"It was all positive reactions," he told reporters. "It does now mean that ICRC convoys are on the way to South Ossetia."

One of the first jobs for the ICRC team would be to determine the needs of the population cut off by the conflict, Kellenberger said. "We cannot give an assessment right now because we have not been in South Ossetia."

Tskhinvali was the site of some of the fiercest fighting between the Georgian army and South Ossetian rebels backed by Russian troops. The city is currently under Russian control.

Kellenberger said his staff would open an office in the Georgian city of Gori, also damaged by fighting.

The ICRC staff has been working in the city for a week, he said. "In Gori, we have observed five apartment blocks that have been shelled, but otherwise there is no massive destruction."

The neutral, Swiss-based agency estimates that in the rest of Georgia 80,000 people have fled their homes -- both Georgians from South Ossetia and Georgians from Gori and cities in western Georgia, Kellenberger said.

The ICRC already is providing help to four hospitals caring for about 1,000 war-wounded people in Georgia. Across the Russian border "we know of over 220 war-wounded in the hospitals in North Ossetia," Kellenberger added.

The agency understands that 8,000 refugees from Georgia are still in North Ossetia, but that they are difficult to count and a number have already returned to their homes, Kellenberger said.