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UNHCR Briefing Notes: Northern Caucasus, Timor, Afghanistan, High Commissioner in FYR Macedonia

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This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Quoted text from this briefing note may be attributed to the UNHCR spokesperson named below
Kris Janowski

1. Northern Caucasus

Civilians continue to flee villages in southern Chechnya amid reports of widespread destruction of property and a continuing military push by Russian troops. Newcomers report that virtually all homes in the Komsomolskoe village in Southern Chechnya have been destroyed. The number of people fleeing Chechnya has remained steady at about 1,000 people a week. The Russian government's emergency response agency EMERCOM has asked UNHCR to provide 150 tents, as well as cots, mattresses and bed linen to accommodate those newly arriving. There has also been some return movement back into Urus Martan and Gudermes. But despite the Russians providing free transportation for those going back, few return. Most of the displaced cite fear of detention and general devastation in Chechnya as the reasons for not going back. One 48-year old widow told UNHCR she was afraid that her two sons would be arrested by the Russians if they went back. A man who briefly returned to Grozny said living in empty and devastated Grozny and hearing frequent bursts of machine gunfire was a terrifying experience.

To date, UNHCR has sent 51 relief convoys to the northern Caucasus at a total cost of US$4.5 million.

2. Timor

More than 500 East Timorese crossed the border into East Timor on Monday. Today, another 500 refugees are sailing from Kupang in West Timor, bound for Dili in East Timor. More than 156,200 refugees have returned to East Timor since the UNHCR-IOM repatriation program began in October.

Since the rate of returns slowed down in late December and early January, the number is slowly increasing to a daily average of 400 last week. One of the factors is uncertainty in the camps in West Timor as a result of the government's announcement that assistance will be stopped at the end of the month. UNHCR continues to discuss this issue with Indonesian officials. The Indonesian government has lived up to its responsibility in helping the refugees. UNHCR hopes this will continue. While UNHCR is committed to helping provide assistance to refugees, it does not have the resources the Indonesian government has in dealing with the problem.

In East Timor, there are hopeful signs that life is returning to normal in many villages. Returnees in general have integrated without too many problems, but there are also isolated security incidents involving returnees that are worrying.

On Saturday night in Dili, a group of men beat up two suspected ex-militia members who had returned a month earlier. A U.N. civilian police who came to the rescue was also beaten up. It was the first assault on a U.N. police officer in East Timor.

3. Returns to Afghanistan

On Monday 27 March, some 450 Afghans left Peshawar (North West Frontier Province) for the village of Ambar Khana in Batikot district, Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan marking the start of this year's repatriation season during which up to 200,000 Afghans could go home from Pakistan and Iran.

A second group of 350 is expected to follow on 29 March and the first repatriation from Karachi to Kandahar is planned for next week.

The returnees receive a repatriation grant of US$100 per family, 300 kilograms of wheat and plastic sheeting.

UNHCR's offices in Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, will monitor the authorities' abidance by their declarations that returnees will not suffer discrimination on account of religion, ethnic origin and gender; that they will have access to property and land, and that they will be exempt from conscription for at least one year.

In 1999, more than 92,000 Afghan refugees returned home from Pakistan and more than 77,000 from Iran, but there are still 2.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran, making Afghans the single largest refugee group in the world.

4. High Commissioner in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

The High Commissioner today addressed the Macedonian parliament in Skopje where she praised Macedonia for hosting hundreds of thousands of Kosovo refugees during the Kosovo crisis last Spring. Mrs Ogata spoke of difficulties and even misunderstandings between UNHCR and Macedonia at the height of the crisis but she noted that the spirit of co-operation prevailed. Later today, Mrs Ogata will travel to Albania - the last leg of her Balkan trip - before returning to Geneva.

This document is intended for public information purposes only. It is not an official UN document.