'How many of my people were burned?'

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A LEADING Russian conductor yesterday called for an investigation into civilian deaths in the Caucasus, the latest festival artist to weigh into the conflict.

Valery Gergiev, director of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, said there were large numbers of casualties sustained in South Ossetia, near where he grew up, in the first hours of the fighting.

Citing reports that 1,600 bodies were found after early attacks by Georgian forces, he asked: "Do you know how many more were burned alive?"

Gergiev, who works with orchestras from Rotterdam to New York, conducts three major concerts in the Edinburgh International Festival this weekend with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Speaking to The Scotsman yesterday, he called for an end to the fighting. "I believe there should be no further violence and we should simply let people bury their dead."

However, fiercely critical of Georgia's forces, he called on the western media to investigate their actions. "The world should know the truth of what happened," he said.

Gergiev's immediate family live with him in St Petersburg, but he has relatives in the war zone. He told yesterday of a friend who lost five members of his family.

Gergiev arrived in Edinburgh just after the Georgian prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili, who spoke out passionately for her country, accusing Russia of trying to carve up its territory.

"The only question I have, including to Nina, whom I know a little bit, is does she know what happened overnight on the first day?" Gergiev said.

In the city of Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia, bombs and missiles started falling at 11:35pm, he said.

"Does the world know how many people were killed? Does the world know who killed these people? Does the world think Russians killed Russians?

"An investigation has to take place, the faces have to be discovered and declared. There is total confusion in the West," Gergiev said.

"They don't understand who bombed Tskhinvali. The city was totally destroyed."

The International Festival's theme this year is Artists Without Borders, and the conflict in Georgia has brought it a sharp and unforeseen edge.

Gergiev was named artistic director of the Mariinsky by Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev nearly 20 years ago. He ran a series of fund-raising concerts for the victims of the school siege in Beslan, North Ossetia.

The Georgian Anchiskhati Choir was also performing in the Festival yesterday.

Its director, Zaal Tsereteli, said his singers had just left for Stockholm, en route to Edinburgh, when the conflict started.

"It's really hard, it's really hard," he said. "It is very unpleasant, and very bad, very dangerous for our families there."

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