'Planes are bombing us, fire is raging above. Somebody help'

Eye witnesses describe patriotic celebration turning to terror as Russian missiles rain down

IT IS a scene straight out of hell, one of hundreds or even thousands being played out across the towns and villages of Georgia in the past 48 hours.

Shock and despair etched in his face, a young man cradles his dead or dying relative watched by Georgian troops, themselves helpless amid the carnage.

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Sirens wail as troops and civilians alike are gripped by panic as explosions from Russian air attacks echo around the Georgian town of Gori.

War has returned to Europe in all its bloody savagery.

More than 60 years after the end of the Second World War the birthplace of Joseph Stalin is once again under siege.

Yesterday, as the fog of war swirled across the Caucasus the community of Gori was obscured by plumes of choking smoke.

Reporter Jonah Hull was in the town when an atmosphere of patriotic fervour turned to blind panic and terror.

The Al Jazeera correspondent said: "Gori is the staging post for the Georgian military heading towards the front in South Ossetia.

"On Saturday morning we were talking to and filming a number of very fresh-faced-looking Georgian recruits called up as part of President Saakashvili's full mobilisation of the military on Friday.

"They looked relaxed and calm. All of a sudden the sound of a warplane was heard overhead and there was a huge explosion not too far away.

"They scattered like flies. They didn't know what to do. These men were not hardened troops by any manner of means."

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Hull said the chaos deepened as bomb after bomb hit the town. "There were cars driving in all directions carrying the injured.

"We got reports from witnesses and civilians that outside villages had also been hit."

Nightmarish images from inside showed smoke billowing from housing blocks which had been hit during the Russian bombardment.

Outside an elderly woman lay prone in the twisted remains of her apartment. Her face obscured by soot and blood, she cried out for help and held out a despairing hand as a fire raged close behind her. Eventually a soldier came to her aid.

Down the street a man in his seventies was attempting to lift his injured wife to safety as people gathered in the town centre anxiously looking for the names of their missing loved ones in lists of the known dead and wounded which were pinned up on walls and lampposts.

Earlier, groups of soldiers were filmed smiling and giving clenched-fist salutes as they trooped off to camouflaged army vans and waited for orders.

Following the air attack they looked visibly shaken as they helped to tend to the wounded and retrieve the bodies of the dead.

Some gathered by the town's imposing statue of Stalin, which had survived the air attack as it had all previous attempts to topple it, while others knelt on the streets and prayed.

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Fighter jets carried out up to five raids on mostly military targets around Gori but at least one bomb is thought to have hit an apartment, killing five civilians, according to reports.

Alex Rossi of Sky News was also in Gori yesterday.

He said: "We have seen a number of Russian aerial strikes throughout the morning. They have certainly hit a Georgian military installation.

"We can't tell how many casualties are inside. It is blocked off. There is a munitions depot inside and there are shells exploding."

Rossi, the network's Russian correspondent, said the bomb blast had echoed through neighbouring civilian apartment blocks.

"We have seen a number of injured civilians being led away. We have seen elderly people being led away. We have seen families heading out of Gori fearing the worst and heading towards Tbilisi and hoping they will find some sort of the safety there.

"The battle lines in this conflict are becoming extremely ugly. They are no longer just inside South Ossetia. Russia has been making air incursions into Georgian territory."

The BBC's Richard Galpin also saw the aftermath of the bombardment.

He said: "Soldiers have been running through the streets as well as civilians fleeing for safety.

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"We saw the impact of the air strikes and we have also seen that the Russians missed their targets at least once and hit a residential apartment block.

"Two buildings are on fire with civilians inside. We saw at least one man pulled out dead and were told that a number of people were killed or injured."

Galpin said that a large number of Georgian troops had poured into the town in recent days, suggesting there is a mass mobilisation of the country's 26,000-strong army.

He added: "There are claims from the Georgian side that several Georgian military bases were bombed by Russian aircraft and a port in the south of the country, on the Black Sea coast a long way from Gori.

"Clearly the Russians are choosing a lot of targets around the country."

Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia which is being backed by Russia, is also reported to have suffered from air attacks at the hands of Georgian forces.

Witnesses said the main hospital in Tskhinvali was believed to be struggling to cope with a growing number of casualties, with at least 100 people being admitted in the past 48 hours.

The road to Tbilisi is reported to be echoing with sirens as convoys of ambulances head towards the Georgian capital.

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Russian news authorities have released an interview with a woman who claims she is trapped in the basement of her bombed-out Tskhinvali home, with the body of her dead son beside her, following a Georgian missile attack.

Russia Today, which is sponsored by the Moscow government, claims to have been contacted by Paeesia Sytnik by phone.

She is reported to have said: "The planes are bombing us. I am sitting here in the basement. Fire is raging above us. Let somebody come and help us. Where are the peacekeepers? I am sitting here with other people.

" My son has been killed. Why does nobody come to save us?"

There are claims that the humanitarian situation in the city is grim, with residents left without water or power supplies.

"I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined building, in cars," said Lyudmila Ostayeva, who had fled with her family to Dzhava, a village near the border with Russia.