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Chechnya: UNHCR Urges Russia To Reopen Border Crossings

Geneva/Grozny, 26 October 1999 (NCA) - The United Nations refugee agency today called on Russia to reopen the border between its breakaway republic of Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Kris Janowski said in Geneva that reopening the border -- closed over the past weekend by Russia -- would allow tens of thousands of trapped civilians to escape escalating fighting in Chechnya. He said that the high commissioner, Sadako Ogata, was concerned by media reports about high civilian casualties in Chechnya, where there is no international humanitarian presence. Before the Russians closed the border, some 170,000 Chechens fled west to Ingushetia. Last week, Ingush authorities told the UNHCR they feared at least another 130,0000 wanted to leave the embattled republic.

Ingush President Ruslan Aushev today confirmed that Chechen fighters had attacked Russian military positions in his republic. Chechen officials earlier claimed heavy casualties among Russian troops -- 38 dead and 100 wounded -- they said they had attacked in overnight raids on the Ingush villages of Chemulga and Nesterovskaya. There was no independent confirmation of the claim.

In Chechnya itself, both sides said they had inflicted heavy casualties on their adversaries in overnight fighting near Grozny, in and around Gudermes -- the republic's second-largest city about 20 kilometers from the capital -- and elsewhere in the republic. Again, there was no objective confirmation of either side's claims -- more than 80 Russian dead, according to the Chechens, and some 20 Chechen dead, according to the Russians.

Russian media reported Russian reconnaissance units had entered several western suburbs of Grozny and exchanged fire with Chechen fighters. But it remained unclear whether Moscow intends to make a full-scale assault on the capital.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said the conflict in Chechnya was not the Alliance's business "at this time." Robertson said Chechnya was a Russian "domestic question" and was the subject of discussion in the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council.