London, 6 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Amnesty International has called on authorities in the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia to ensure that thousands of ethnic Georgian refugees can return safely to the homes which they fled amid heavy fighting three years ago.
A statement by the London-based human rights movement urged Abkhazian authorities "to take all appropriate and timely measures to ensure the safe and voluntary return of refugees and displaced persons."
The ethnic Georgian population of Abkhazia, in northwestern Georgia, fled virtually en masse in 1993 before advancing troops under Abkhazian control because they feared reprisals on ethnic grounds.
The refugee exodus followed months of fighting in the disputed region between Georgian troops and Abkhazian separatists.
Following a ceasefire brokered by Russia, it was agreed in May, 1994, to deploy hundreds of peacekeeping troops in the Abkhazia region under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
At about the same time, Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia and the UN also signed an agreement in Moscow on the voluntary return of the Georgian refugees, and on their right to return home in secure conditions.
But an AI statement says many refugees seeking to return have been deterred by the tense security situation, fear of reprisals by Abkhazian militias, and by the obstructive behavior of Abkhazian bureaucrats.
The security situation is said to be particularly poor in the southern district of Gali which had a large prewar population of ethnic Georgians
The AI statement said some displaced people have returned to their homes, but have allegedly faced deliberate targeting by Abkhazian militia forces. These forces are alleged to have tortured and murdered at least 13 ethnic Georgians in the first three months of last year.
AI calls on Abkhaz authorities to conduct "immediate, comprehensive and impartial investigations" of all such reports. AI is also seeking information in the cases of a number of ethnic Georgians detained, it is alleged, arbitrarily by Abkhazian police forces.
The AI report says an estimated 35,000 ethnic Georgians have returned to their homes in the Gali area, most of them spontaneously, although the exact number is disputed. Many remain, in a difficult economic plight, in areas of western Georgia adjoining Abkhazia.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has set up a registration system to monitor the return of the ethnic Georgians. Under this system, people wishing to return must fill in a form which is submitted to the UNHCR and then forwarded to Abkhazian authorities who are supposed to review the application within two weeks.
However, the AI statement says the process has been considerably slowed by Abkhazian bureaucratic moves. It says the criteria for return set by the Abkhazians have been described as "arbitrary, discriminatory and restrictive" with "byzantine stipulations" for filling out the forms correctly. As a result, many ethnic Georgians who have returned to their homes have done outside of the registration system.
Urging Abkhaz authorities to facilitate the safe return of the ethnic Georgian population, the AI statement says "their return appears to be hindered on the grounds of their ethnicity and suspected political sympathies rather than on 'bona fide' security or public order grounds."
AI acknowledges the "extreme political and economic dislocation" in Abkhazia but says it has monitored a number of alleged rights violations which, it believes, lie within the ability of Abkhaz authorities to address. Among AI's continuing concerns are: attacks on civilians, including deliberate and arbitrary killings; arbitrary detentions; and obstacles placed in the way of refugees wishing to return home.