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UNHCR Briefing Notes: DR Congo/Congo, North Caucasus, Timor, Kosovo

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

1. Democratic Republic of Congo

UNHCR is providing assistance to between 10,000 and 15,000 refugees who fled the northern province of Equateur in the DR of Congo and are now scattered along a 400-km stretch of the Oubangui River on the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) side. For the past several weeks, civilians have been fleeing fighting between government troops and the advancing rebel forces of Jean-Pierre Mbemba, who are progressing from the north towards the DRC town Mbandaka.

The refugees have crossed the Oubangui River to seek asylum in the area of Impfondo in Congo Brazzaville. Most of the refugees refer to the rebel forces as "liberators" and say they are fleeing alleged violence and harassment by retreating government troops.

A UNHCR field office has been opened in Impfondo to respond to the needs of this refugee population. Refugees are reported to be dispersed over 400 kms of the river. So far, UNHCR has got access to the biggest concentration of refugees, between Impfondo and Dongou, and have registered 10,870 people. Due to the difficult terrain, problems with fuel supplies and increasing insecurity, the UNHCR team has been unable to go beyond Dongou to the northern town of Betou, where thousands of other refugee arrivals have been reported.

In agreement with the authorities in Brazzaville, refugees are not settled in camps. They are hosted by the local population and are supplied by UNHCR with basic items such as plastic sheeting, blankets and fishing nets. Local dispensaries have been supplied with medicines and vaccines for children. Up to now, distribution of food appears unnecessary. The majority of the refugees are fishermen and are largely self-sufficient in food.

2. Timor

We are alarmed by unconfirmed reports in the Indonesian press, attributed to officials in West Timor, that around 200 people, mostly children and women, have died of various illnesses over the past week in the Indonesian-run camps for East Timorese.

The reports say that since September, when the East Timorese began arriving in West Timor, some 700 people have died in the camps and the situation became serious in recent days because of flooding during the current monsoon season, causing diseases and sanitation problems. We cannot immediately confirm these reports because we have very limited access and programs in the West Timor camps. However, we have dispatched two experts from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta who are looking into the health situation in West Timor. We expect a report from them soon.

For the moment, our main activity in West Timor is repatriation - seeing to it that all the East Timorese who wish to go back to East Timor are able to do so freely, particularly in view of recent pronouncements by the governor of West Timor that refugees should decide whether or not to go back before the end of next month.

We are pressing ahead with our mass information program in West Timor, reporting on conditions of return. We continue to be concerned about militia activities in the camps. There was another incident this morning at Atambua's Tulamalae encampment. Several dozen returnees were held up by militiamen as they prepared to move out of Tulamalae. The militiamen said they could not take with them their bags, claiming they were Indonesian property. A UNHCR team, with help from the Indonesian military, was able to take them out of the camp after a 30-minute delay.

Some 500 people joined the UNHCR-IOM repatriation convoy today from Atambua. More than 141,000 East Timorese have returned to East Timor since October, but the rate of returns remains low compared to the thousands departing daily in late November and early December.

3. North Caucasus

The numbers of people leaving Chechnya for Ingushetia have risen over the past few days amid persistent reports of human rights violations inside Russian-controlled Chechnya and heavy air and artillery bombardment in the rebel-controlled south. Since last Wednesday, more than 3,000 people have crossed into Ingushetia. Nearly 500 of them are believed to be newly displaced from southern Chechnya, which is now the focus of the Russian military push.

Reports of human rights violations and detention, which circulate widely among some 180,000 people displaced from Chechnya to Ingushetia, have instilled fear in the displaced population. Many of the people say they would like to go home but they are afraid to do so.

People returning to Ingushetia after brief look-and-see visits to parts of Chechnya controlled by the Russians speak of looting, burning of property, and beatings by Russian troops. Even though UNHCR has no presence in Chechnya and therefore has no first-hand information from the ground, we are alarmed by these testimonies, as well as those of abuse in alleged Russian detention camps, cited by international human rights groups. The displaced say the worst abuses usually take place in areas freshly overrun by the troops, ahead of the establishment of a functioning civilian administration.

4. Kosovo

Nearly 1,500 people, primarily ethnic Albanians but also Muslim Slavs and ethnic Turks have fled the Serb-populated north of Kosovo's divided city of Mitrovica, since ethnic violence erupted there on February 4th. On Thursday, UNHCR registered seven families who fled from the northern part of the city.

UNHCR and its partner agency CARE are working on a project to reinforce the doors of minority residents in Mitrovica to give them better protection against attacks. We have also been taking fresh food to the homes of minority families who are too terrified to venture out. The Belgian chapter of Médecins sans Frontières is organizing home medical visits.

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