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Russia: Chechen Civilians Remain Stranded

Thousands of Chechen civilians remain trapped at the republic's border with Ingushetia, blocked by Russian forces. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports on the situation at the border and talks with a UN refugee official on the situation.

Prague, 3 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of Chechens remain trapped at the border with the republic of Ingushetia today despite Russian promises to let them pass. Russia shut Chechnya's borders nearly two weeks ago and thousands of civilians have been struggling to cross -- some want out to escape the fighting while others want to return to rescue loved ones.

Moscow has said it had opened the border this week, but police have only let a few refugees through. The UNHCR says only 510 refugees were allowed to cross the checkpoint into Ingushetia yesterday. Another 420 Chechens were allowed back into the breakaway republic. An RFE/RL correspondent on the border reports that only 20 refugees were allowed to cross by mid-day today. Refugees also complain that they are being treated harshly by Russian soldiers.

Vladimir Kalamanov, the chief of Russia's Federal Migration Service, faced reporters in Moscow today to explain the discrepancies between what Moscow claims is happening at the border crossing and what correspondents are reporting.

"I will not comment on the conduct of the military at the Ingush border-crossing point. Our mistake was to allow the process of re-establishment of this crossing point to take too long. That's the problem. The problem is not that we do not want to let people cross this point in one or the other direction. The problem is in the organization of the process."

Meanwhile, the United Nations' refugee agency says a humanitarian mission arrived today in Ingushetia to assess the plight of refugees who have fled the fighting in Chechnya.

Vera Soboleva, a spokeswoman at the UNHCR's Moscow office, told RFE/RL today that the mission will spend up to six days in Ingushetia and Dagestan before traveling to Moscow early next week. The team includes international representatives from the UNHCR, the UN's World Food Program, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the UN Development Program and the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Soboleva:

"In order to be better informed and assess the needs, and to understand to what extent people are in need, we dispatched today this UN humanitarian mission. It is composed of several UN agencies. We hope when they come back we'll have a better assessment of the situation and we can better plan delivery of relief items in the future."

Soboleva says UNCHR staff have confirmed that nearly 190,000 displaced Chechens are now in neighboring Ingushetia. She says as many as 10,000 are in North Ossetia, and that there are another 3,000 in Dagestan and 2,500 in Stavropol. She says another 2,000 are refugees in Georgia.

Soboleva says the International Committee of the Red Cross and Russian sources also report some 190,000 more Chechens have fled their homes but remain within Chechnya. She says the UNCHR does not have its own information from Chechnya because it does not have any staff working within the republic.

"We never planned any mission to Chechnya because this issue hasn't been discussed with the Russian authorities. And also for security reasons. Plus we know that another international organization, the International Committee for the Red Cross, is working in Chechnya. So far, we've concentrated all of our activities in Ingushetia."

Last week, an apparent Russian airstrike on a refugee convoy in Chechnya killed two Red Cross workers and 25 civilians. But Soboleva says military operations are not the only reason for the UNHCR to refrain from sending staff into Chechnya. Soboleva says the UNHCR and other relief agencies also are concerned about the possibility of their staff being kidnapped. She says this same concern applies to sending foreign nationals to Russian republics neighboring Chechnya.

"You know, in Ingushetia we do not have any international staff. In Vladikavkaz, in North Ossetia, we do not have any international staff. We have only local staff and we have our sub-office in Stavropol which covers our activities in southern Russia and the North Caucasus. We do not plan to open any offices, as we did before, in Ingushetia or in North Ossetia. We send all of our [relief supplies] from Stavropol to Nazran [in Ingushetia] by truck."

The UNHCR has sent $500,000 worth of humanitarian relief to Ingushetia so far in relief convoys -- most of it food. Soboleva says clothing, food and medicine also has been purchased but much of it has yet to be delivered. But, correspondents on the Ingushetia-Chechnya border say the relief effort has been insufficient so far and that there is a threat of starvation.