A European special envoy on Georgia claims there has been "de facto ethnic cleansing" in South Ossetia since Russian forces repulsed Georgia's attempt to wrest back the rebel region last year.
It was an unusually blunt reference to reported violence in South Ossetia by an envoy from the 56-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, coinciding with OSCE efforts to stave off the closure of its monitoring mission in Georgia.
"(In South Ossetia), there is now a situation where you have had de facto ethnic cleansing, where refugees have their homes and wish to go back," said Goran Lennmarker, Georgia envoy foruses by both sides, including possible war crimes, targeting civilian areas during their conflict last August.
Both sides have denied any such wrongdoing. Lennmarker spoke ahead of a Feb 10-12 visit to Georgia. He does not represent the OSCE's policy-making executive, the Permanent Council, whose officials have not characterised South Ossetian violence as ethnic cleansing because the body, which includes Russia, operates on consensus.
But an OSCE diplomat said Lennmarker's comment might not be helpful in the effort of Europe's biggest multilateral security and rights body to save its monitoring mandate in Georgia.
Russia vetoed a mandate extension at the end of 2008 to press its demand for a separate South Ossetia mission instead of renewing the one encompassing all of Georgia.
Western countries rejected that, fearing it would amount to acknowledging pro-Russian South Ossetia is a sovereign state. Only Russia and Nicaragua have recognised its "independence."
Two weeks ago, Russia welcomed new proposals from current OSCE council chairman Greece to resolve the row. Details of the proposal were withheld, and negotiations are continuing. Monitors are winding down the mission pending the outcome.
Western states say OSCE monitors patrolling Georgia's conflict zone with South Ossetia can provide early warning of any new flare-up in hostilities, and investigate allegations of persecution of ethnic Georgians.
But monitors, both from the OSCE and a larger EU observer mission operating along the de facto boundary, have been blocked from entering South Ossetia since the brief August war.
Military observers from the Vienna-based OSCE have been based in Georgia since 1992.