Georgian Jewish quarter comes under siege
Wandering in a daze amid the devastated walls of Tskhinvali's ancient Jewish quarter, an elderly man stops to gawp at the foreign journalists in an armoured personnel carrier.
When asked about the city's synagogue, he flashes a broad smile and heads down the central road, over a pile of mangled bricks and fallen steel cables, to the top of a hill.
"Look," he says, pointing towards a large brick building poking out unscathed among the wreckage. "She's fine. You don't have to worry about her." The Jewish quarter, located near the former seat of the rebel government in the centre of the city, has been the site of some of the heaviest bombing during the Georgian move to retake the breakaway republic.
Mangled buildings, their centuries-old stone spilled across the narrow streets of one of the North Caucasus centres of Jewish learning - where Jews once made up more than 40 per cent of the population - make it difficult for anyone to get their bearings.
The smouldering wreckage of a white mini van caked in ash and soot sits in front of a house, more than 300 years old, the owner says, but now in tatters. The aerial and artillery bombardments continued ceaselessly for four days, say local residents. Sporadic artillery bursts and small-arms fire can still be heard not far away.
Fierce fighting broke out in the region when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili moved to retake control of the capital of the separatist republic of South Ossetia early on Friday.
Georgian troops stormed the city, under a hail of artillery and aerial bombardment. Russia seized control of the area, pouring in tens of thousands of troops and vehicles.
Columns of thick black smoke filled the sky, making it difficult to breathe. Fires raged throughout the northern suburbs as Russian armour and troops continued to flood into the city.
Although destruction could be seen throughout the city, the fiercest fighting appears to have been limited to certain neighbourhoods, the Jewish quarter chief among them.