A United Nations top refugee official expressed on Sunday grave concern over the plight of thousands of civilians caught up in fighting in and around the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia.
"The conflict has caused civilian casualties and more are at risk," said Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR).
"Many people need help and many are seeking safety elsewhere," he added.
In a statement, Guterres said humanitarian access and safe passage for uprooted civilians and the aid workers trying to help them was now crucial.
"It is essential that humanitarian agencies be able to reach the affected and the displaced, and that those trapped in conflict areas be granted passage to safer areas as soon as possible," he said.
"It is absolutely essential that both sides respect humanitarian principles and ensure the protection and safety of civilians," he added.
Several thousand displaced people have fled South Ossetia to other parts of Georgia, and thousands more have gone northwards to the North Ossetia region of the Russian Federation, according to authorities there.
Guterres said UNHCR, which has an office in the North Ossetia city of Vladikavkaz, stands ready to provide humanitarian support should Russian authorities request it.
The agency has some aid stockpiles in both Georgia and the Russian Federation.
(Xinhau News Agency August 11, 2008)