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UN: Security Concern Keeps Aid Workers Out Of Chechnya

Humanitarian officials from the United Nations and the Russian government have reached an agreement that provides for relief workers to operate in Chechnya. But security concerns have so far prevented UN aid groups from entering the republic. The situation illustrates the precariousness of civilians, and aid workers in many areas of conflict today. UN Correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 19 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A top humanitarian official says fears over banditry and kidnapping are preventing the UN relief agencies from operating in Russia's war-ravaged republic of Chechnya.

The deputy to the UN's undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Carolyn McAskie, told reporters on 18 April that the United Nations is negotiating an agreement with Russian officials to allow aid groups under the UN umbrella to function in Chechnya. But she said a survey of the conditions in the republic show it to be still too dangerous for international aid workers.

"We recently sent a UN security assessment team to cross the border into Chechnya to come and recommend whether or not it was safe for us to go in and actually deliver assistance inside. The answer was 'not yet.'"

McAskie said the security team reports that there is "open banditry" right now in Chechnya in addition to areas of ongoing conflict between Chechen rebels and Russian troops. She said UN officials are concerned at the possibility that relief workers could be kidnapped and be held as a negotiating tool by Chechen rebels.

"That part of the world has been endemically an area for kidnapping and hostages. So there is a sort of generalized warning from our own security personnel for us to be very careful in going into a place where there is continuous ongoing conflict."

McAskie says Russian officials are eager for UN humanitarian groups to begin work in Chechnya. The United Nations sent an aid convoy in February from Ingushetia to the Chechen capital, Grozny and McAskie says there are plans to send a new convoy soon if the security situation improves.

The Russian government recently also reached agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross to begin operating in Chechnya. An early assessment by the Red Cross, issued last week, says the most pressing needs for assistance are in the southwest and southeast of the republic, the regions hardest hit by the conflict.

It says the general health situation remains serious even though the main regional hospitals, with the exception of those in Grozny and Shatoy, have started working again.

Nearly 200,000 displaced Chechens remain at refugee camps in Ingushetia.

The challenges posed by Chechnya represent one of a number of difficult conflict zones where humanitarian agencies are trying to function.

McAskie says that in addition to Chechnya, the largest scale of civilian suffering from conflict was in Afghanistan, Burundi, and Angola. In each case, she says, millions of civilians have been either displaced or are refugees.

And in Sierra Leone, she says aid workers report that the level of rape of civilian women is worse than that committed last decade in Bosnia, where rape was designated a war crime.

"We notice increasingly the tendency in these conflicts for there to be bandit elements who are very difficult to control and who use civilians as targets and who use the humanitarian workers as targets. It's not just that people get in the way but they are deliberately targeted as part of the conflict."

Concerns about the rising civilian toll of such conflicts led to a report last year from Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Canada held the presidency of the Security Council at the time and now during its current presidency is seeking to formalize some of the recommendations in Annan's report.

The recommendations include tougher measures of conflict prevention, strengthening the UN's ability to respond rapidly when a crisis breaks out, imposing arms embargoes, and allowing civilians unimpeded access to humanitarian assistance.

The Security Council is due to debate the issue today and may vote on a resolution committing the international community to greater assistance of civilian populations.