CRADLING his Kalashnikov automatic rifle, Nevgzar Dezagoiyev stared across the deserted main square of this besieged city, past the decaying statue of Vladimir Lenin standing knee-high in weeds, and fixed his glance on the idle train station.
"It's been at least a year and a half since a train stopped here," said the weary-looking Mr. Dezagoiyev, a member of the militia force defending the city.
A feeling of isolation is weighing heavily on the few remaining residents of Tskhinvali, the capital of the South Ossetia, an autonomous region in the Caucasian republic of Georgia. Georgian militants have besieged the city for most of the last 18 months, pounding buildings with artillery and automatic weapons from surrounding hills. The constant shelling has forced many people off the debris-strewn streets and into basements.
"Everyone is suffering terribly and there is very little food," says Galya Antasevich, one of the cellar-dwellers. "This life isn't fit for a dog." In recent months, the fighting around Tskhinvali has intensified as Georgia has been rocked by a civil war that forced elected President Zviad Gamsakhurdia into exile last December.
The escalation of the fighting has strained relations between Russia and Georgia and has threatened to embroil Moscow in the conflict.
South Ossetians charge the Georgians with conducting a "genocide" as part of a "Georgia-for-the-Georgians" government policy. Georgians, meanwhile, say they are fighting to maintain their territorial integrity. South Ossetia currently is agitating to secede from Georgia and unite with North Ossetia, an autonomous region in Russia. Peacekeeping prospects
On Wednesday, political leaders stepped back from the brink of all-out confrontation. Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze agreed with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on a formula for a cease-fire in South Ossetia and eventual introduction of a peacekeeping force in the region.
However, despite the agreement, many residents and refugees of Tskhinvali believe chances are slim that peace will come anytime soon. Indeed, on Tuesday, the eve of the talks, six were killed and 19 wounded in Tskhinvali by Georgian artillery.
North and South Ossetian political leaders are even more pessimistic than civilians on peace prospects. Ossetian leaders participated in the Shevardnadze talks, but did not sign the documents, says Alan Kasayev, director of the Caucasus Information Agency. South Ossetian Foreign Minister Urizmag Dzhioyev called the agreement "an attempt by Russia to sell us out to Georgia."
"Negotiations in May produced [cease-fire] agreements," said North Ossetian parliament chairman Akhsarbik Galazov, "but the fighting always seemed to increase, rather than decrease, after signing them."
Mr. Galazov maintains that the introduction of peacekeeping troops is key to any settlement, saying that the truce monitors could come from the Russian Army, the armed forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States, or the United Nations.
"The adoption of any decision, or document, without it being followed up by concrete action, will not work," Galazov adds.
While calling for the introduction of peacekeepers into South Ossetia, the agreement signed by Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Shevardnadze does not provide specifics on when such a force would be deployed, or its composition. Dispute in capital
South Ossetian Deputy Prime Minister Rezor Khugayev says the Georgian leadership is in no position to carry out its promises because of domestic political problems. The chaos in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, manifested itself again on Wednesday when supporters of Mr. Gamsakhurdia staged an unsuccessful uprising. The rebels managed only to occupy the city's television center for only a few hours before being driven out by forces loyal to the provisional government.
Three people were killed and 26 wounded in the rebellion, Georgian government officials said. The uprising delayed the Shevardnadze-Yeltsin meeting at the Black Sea resort town of Sochi by several hours.
"The political leadership of Georgia isn't ready [for a settlement] because they cannot make compromises," Mr. Khugayev said. "No negotiations can be successful when one side isn't ready for compromise."
South Ossetian leaders take a harder line than their ethnic kin in North Ossetia, insisting that Russian military intervention is the only way to end the conflict.
"The only way out now is to reunite North and South Ossetia under Russian jurisdiction," said Alan Chechiyev, deputy chairman of the South Ossetian parliament.
The Russian Army has shown little enthusiasm for getting involved, as Russian troops were nowhere to be seen in the battle zone around Tskhinvali. Nevertheless, Moscow could find itself being drawn into the imbroglio against its will, said Mr. Chechiyev.
"If there is no Russian intervention then the peoples of the mountainous Russian Caucasus will take matters into their own hands," he said. Even the more moderate North Ossetian leaders, such as Galazov, warned that if a peacekeeping force were not quickly deployed, North Ossetia "would have no alternative but to order a general mobilization ... and go to the aid of our southern brothers and sisters." Gloomy feeling
Such talk of continued fighting only heightens the gloomy feeling at refugee camps near the North Ossetian capital of Ordzhonikidze. "All I want is peace, I don't care anymore about independence," says Marina, a refugee who declines to give her last name.
About 100,000 refugees have flooded into North Ossetia since the fighting in the south began. So far, North Ossetia has accommodated the refugees, but Galazov warned that the region's ability to cope with the problem has reached the breaking point.
"If we do not receive help, this winter could be harsh," he said.