ARDON RIVER VALLEY, Russia (AP) -- Columns of Russian armor crawled up the deep passes of the Caucasus Mountains on Saturday toward the border with South Ossetia in a push to support Russian troops fighting in the Georgian separatist region.
A Russian armored vehicle rumbles down a street in the Ardon Valley, bound for the Georgian border.
Dozens of columns of up to 40 exhaust-belching vehicles wound through long tunnels, crossed bridges and passed villages clinging to the steep mountain slopes. The armor either halted at bases close to the border or rolled on.
Military and other officials on the scene declined to be interviewed and prevented foreigners from crossing the border.
For hours, the columns of weapons and support vehicles kicked up squalls of dust on the road, in a stark display of Russia's determination to exert its will in what it considers its backyard.
At the border crossing near the village of Zamarg, armored vehicles swept past cars and buses waiting to head south into the region where heavy fighting broke out early Friday.
Meanwhile, a stream of refugees arrived in buses from the south.
They registered with authorities and then headed to the homes of relatives, government shelters in schools, private homes and at least one monastery.
Lara Goyeva, a 28-year-old musician, told of being rocketed and shelled by Georgian troops, and finally escaping to make the journey north. She said she saw many people injured.
When asked what had happened to him, a gray-haired man with red-rimmed eyes in a military uniform only shook his head and buried his face in his arms.
Valentina Beskayeva, who works for a Russian construction company, waited at the border crossing for almost two hours, hoping to spot her mother, sister and 8-year-old son, Alan, on one of the refugee buses.
The three, she said, lived in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital that has been the center of the fighting.
She said she had spoken Friday to her son, who said there had been fighting near the house but proudly told her he hadn't cried, saying, "I am a man."
The 41-year-old woman said, with tears in her eyes, that her father had been killed in fighting in Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia, in 1994.
"Why is there war?" she asked. "Why? People fight and die for a few square meters of land. Why?"
Late morning, Russian troops fired two rockets from a base near the border. A short time later, what appeared to be three Russian attack helicopters passed overhead, heading toward South Ossetia.
Regular military troops streaming across the border were joined by civilian fighters driving their own vehicles, wearing slapped-together uniforms and carrying personal weapons. Many were ethnic Ossetians living in the Russian region of North Ossetia.
One of the fighters, who gave his name as Zaur, said South Ossetia's history was a struggle against tyranny.
"They are guilty; they started the fighting," Zaur said of the Georgians.
The South Ossetia conflict appeared to have revived local faith in the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin that had been shaken severely in 2004 when Chechen militants took more than a thousand hostages in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, a crisis that ended in the deaths of more than 300, most of them children.
"We are Putin fanatics," one of Zaur's fellow volunteers declared.
Putin, president at the time of Beslan, is now prime minister.
Putin arrived in Vladikavkaz, the provincial capital of North Ossetia, on Saturday to talk to South Ossetian refugees. He said that about 34,000 refugees had been registered as of Saturday night
"The leaders of Russia? They support us," said Zakhar Valeyev, 48, an artist working at a restored Orthodox convent on the banks of the Ardon River, where more than 30 refugees had found shelter. He said he had gone to Tskhinvali on Saturday to plead with his brother to flee, but his brother refused.
Many Ossetians said they were angry with the United States, an ally of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, and accused the U.S. of supporting his military strike to regain control of South Ossetia.
"The world powers don't see the situation in the North Caucasus," said Nona Bagayeva, the head of the convent. "And they don't do anything to stop the situation.
"The whole world has come to hate America," she said.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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