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The Refugees: Civilians pour over border into Russia to escape conflict

Refugees continued to pour into Russia across the rocky mountain pass from South Ossetia yesterday, fleeing the violence that threatens to engulf the region.

Using every means of transport available – Soviet-era vans, the ubiquitous cream-coloured Hyundai microbuses operated by the Russian government, or in many cases travelling by foot – thousands have escaped to the relative safety of North Ossetia.

Along the highway between the border and the regional capital Vladikavkaz, Russia has set up makeshift field hospitals to treat civilians.

Oksana Bezhova, 26, was stranded in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, when fighting broke out on Thursday. She took refuge, along with 20 neighbours, in the basement of her building. "We live in a 10-storey building," she said. "When I left the basement I saw that a tank had shot right into the side of the building. Thank God that no one was left there."

Yesterday morning, during a lull in the bombing, the group, led by Ms Bezhova's father Pyotr, fled across the border in a van loaded with refugees. Standing by a dirt road just inside the Russian side of the border with Georgia, Pyotr Bezhova described the scenes that had driven him out of his home. A grizzled soldier who had been in South Ossetia on peacekeeping assignment before the current war broke out, he paused often to hold back tears. "I saw... a car stopped in the middle of an intersection," he said. "Inside the car were a mother, father and their two children. They were all dead. Shot by a tank."

Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, arrived in Vladikavkaz on Saturday and said he estimated that 30,000 refugees had arrived from South Ossetia. Russia has so far refused UN assistance with the exodus, insisting that Moscow is capable of dealing with the crisis.

Eyewitness accounts from those sheltering in the makeshift camps set up by the Russian Emergency Ministry match the official claims of the Russian government and the South Ossetian rebel leadership.

Most people described scenes of horror, chaos and destruction. Few buildings are left standing in Tskhinvali, refugees said. Aerial and artillery bombardment had destroyed the hospital, maternity ward and cemetery, while most of the city's housing lies in ruins.

Some 35 miles from the border with South Ossetia, the grounds of the Alanskaya Regional Women's Monastery have been converted into a refugee camp, housing more than 37 children and their families. A Russian attack helicopter buzzes low over the grounds shattering the quiet. Tserasa Konbegova, 34, fled Tskhinvali with her children on Friday and will be staying in the camp indefinitely. "We were sitting on the ground... when a group of Georgian bombers flew overhead," she said. "They started dropping bombs everywhere. One landed right near us. We thought we were going to die. What will we do now? We have nothing. No money. No clothes. Where will they go to school? What can we do?"