Matt Siegel: 'I came here to defend my people from genocide’

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The Independent Online

"I came here to fight," said Nikolai, a muscular 30-year-old from Stavropol, the birthplace of Mikhail Gorbachev. When Nikolai heard that war had broken out in Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia he left his job, jumped in the car and drove 600 miles through the night to sign up to help defend the Russia cause. "I came here to defend my people from genocide."

Nikolai is far from alone. Since the fighting broke out on Thursday night, hundreds and perhaps thousands of upstart fighters from Siberia to Chechnya have flocked to the border with Georgia to sign up to fight in what they describe as the first front in a full-scale war between Russia and the United States. "This war," barked a stocky young man at a military recruitment centre in Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital [in Russia], "is absolutely a war between Russia and America. The biggest mistake was in underestimating us. Now you'll see what happens."

Officially, Russia denies the existence of volunteer brigades. Moscow does not use conscription and has no provision for enlisting reinforcements in a particular armed conflict, said a military spokesman. Those who have come to the border with Georgia offer only humanitarian aid, he claimed. "The whole of South Ossetia is in ruins. The role of those who came here today is 100 per cent humanitarian. They came to rebuild ... infrastructure."

In Vladikavkaz, a departure point for tanks and troops moving towards South Ossetia, the reality is different. Beneath a corrugated iron awning in the courtyard of the recruitment centre, a group of irregular soldiers mills about restlessly. Their battle get-up ranges from jeans and striped Russian navy T-shirts to Soviet-era military dress. But their chatter is uniform – an endless discussion about the war and what it means. One fighter, who described himself only as a Cossack from Siberia, also said the goal of Georgia's President, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his American backers is nothing less than the complete ethnic cleansing of the region. "It's an American-led genocide," he said. Some volunteers in Vladikavkaz said they were being given assault rifles and $400 (£200).

And some Russian officers, when pressed, admitted that the humanitarian mission was a recruitment smokescreen. "In the past two days, about 2,000 people volunteered. These are men... with experience of military operations in hot spots," the head of one recruitment post told the Russian Ria Novosti news agency.

This volunteer fighting force is something to which even Vladmir Putin, the Prime Minister, has alluded. On Friday, he told George Bush that it would be "difficult to restrain" them.

Closer to the combat zone, near the Roki Tunnel, which leads into South Ossetia, the co-operation between irregular fighters and the official army is immediately apparent. Dozens of cars filled with civilian fighters were interspersed in a column of hundreds of Russian troops and tanks, rumbling through narrow mountain passes around the border.

"Bush kaput! Bush kaput! We will fight against America!" shouted Zelimkhan Gagiev, 27, from the window of his Neva jeep.

Waiting in the courtyard of the recruitment centre, Azamat, 30, was seething. "Not one newspaper in the West has written the truth about what's happening here. No one has written that the Georgians were the ones who started this. That they are the ones shooting women and children."

The North Ossetians, who used to live harmoniously next to Georgian neighbours, are being caught in this wave of anti-Western hysteria. Edik Ikaev, a chef from Vladikavkaz, said: "It's strange, because I've lived around them all my life, but I'm just so angry at the Georgians. If they let me fight, I will."

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