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Tskhinvali, South Ossetia

Georgians will tell you that Tskhinvali has always been a smugglers' town in the foothills of the Caucasus. Yet the Ossetian paramilitaries, languishing in the heat in their mismatching combat gear behind a checkpoint on the road into town, will tell you something else. For them Tskhinvali is the capital of the Republic of South Ossetia.

This is a country under occupation. Just 13 miles from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, I came across the first checkpoint, where most of the western media were hanging around. Only by pretending to be from Gori did I get past the Russian "peacekeepers" and into the closed military zone. An hour later, I found myself picked up by an open-backed Russian military truck, grabbing whatever journalists it could find, to show them the Kremlin's side on a tightly controlled but cack-handed press tour.

On the evening I arrived in Tskhinvali, you could still hear explosive echoes in the hills as the Russian army cleared ordnance. Under the poplars that lined the main road, evocatively named Stalin Street, panes of glass lay smashed on the ground. Evidently, South Ossetians had yet to start the clear-up operation. Militias hung around on street-corners, inspecting slightly damaged cars. Half of these had no numberplates and their windscreens were cracked, indicating that they had been looted from nearby Georgian villages and driven off during the fighting. The Ossetians were celebrating their victory: laughing, back-slapping, passing around plastic bottles of kvass, a fermented rye drink, and cheap cigarettes.

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