South Ossetian refugees pour into Russia

More than 30 women and children hunched still red-eyed and shell-shocked in the back of a minivan just after reaching safety across the Roki tunnel, separating Russia from the heavy fighting in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, dpa reported.

"We're hungry. We spent three days in a bunker with no lights, no gas, no water," said Marina Toyeva, 32, clutching her 8-year-old son and niece during a stop in the village of Mizur, some 30 kilometres into Russia from the South Ossetian border. "We have only the clothes on our backs."

Workers for Russia's migration services passed out sandwiches and water to outstretched hands after flagging the minivan down at one of three checkpoints along the lone road feeding from South Ossetia to Russia.

The war between Russia and Georgia had expanded on Saturday, adding to the flow of refugees from South Ossetia, which allied itself with Russia after declaring itself independent from Georgia in the 1990s. Georgia has sought to maintain control of the territory.

The fiercest battles on Saturday were in the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali, where intense howitzer and tank fire in the vicinity of the town was audible. Shelling intensified in the early afternoon, as Russian reinforcements arriving on the scene went on the counteroffensive.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Tbilisi said Friday that more than 2,000 refugees had fled across the border into Russia, and thousands more likely made their way across the pass Saturday.

No fewer than 400 vehicles, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers, military transport carriers and mobile anti-aircraft guns, formed a Russian military convoy headed the opposite direction on Saturday to join the fighting.

Relatives of those caught in South Ossetia since the start of fighting huddled in groups watching the colonnade, and raising a cheer when four Russian attack helicopters blazed overhead toward the mountains.

But Lida Gabarayeva, 47, broke into tears as another minivan of refugees arrived with no sign of her 5th-grade niece, left in the care of friends for summer vacation in Tskhinvali before the fighting broke out Thursday.

"I thought they might be with them. If they're still alive," she despaired.

Gabarayeva traveled to the border Friday night in an attempt to retrieve the 9-year-old girl. But her niece, a citizen of Georgia, wasn't allowed through, she said standing helpless at the road side, her voice drowned out by the rumble of passing tanks.

"Our husbands are not being let out. Even the old men they're all dying fighting," one refugee Zamira, 36, said, holding her elderly mother's hand in the back of the freshly arrived van. "But they've also stayed because it brings shame on them to leave."

A car of five young South Ossetian men had crossed paths with the Russian military convoy, as the car made a run over the border from Tskhinvali for food, one of the men, Sergei, said Saturday.

"The stores are either on fire or empty. We're heading back tonight but we don't know if we can get through," he said.

On the other side of the 4-kilometre, black tunnel, the road was under heavy fire. A key bridge on the road from Tskhinvali had been also been bombed, and heavy shelling kept women and children stuck in improvised bunkers, the refugees said.

"Now people can't get out (from Tskhinvali), even by foot," said Alik Tomayeva, 41, who has been shuttling people back-and-forth since the fighting broke out. He said he would still try to get through to the capital via another mountain road.

"We will never forget this. There are no words for what we lived," Toyeva's sister said. "That such things could happen in the year 2008, I never thought was possible."

"Even in Iraq, there's not a war like this (Georgians) bombed the hospitals where the men are and nobody is collecting the men lying wounded in the street."

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