High Commissioner Sadako Ogata on Monday reiterated UNHCR's concern about the fate of Chechnya's civilian population trapped in Grozny. She expressed her concern during a telephone conversation with Russia 's Federal Emergencies Minister, Sergei Shoigu. Mr. Shoigu telephoned Mrs. Ogata to tell her that Russia has taken steps to improve the security of aid workers in the Northern Caucasus and decided to exempt U.N. agencies from VAT tax on local purchases. Mrs. Ogata spoke to Mr. Shoigu hours after Russian media reported that Russian military commanders issued an ultimatum to Grozny's non-combatants, telling them to leave the city or be destroyed. She used the telephone conversation to express UNHCR's concern about protection of civilians in Chechnya. She said the fate of Chechnya's civilians was at the moment UNHCR's top concern.
Minister Shoigu said Russia would shortly present a written security plan for international aid workers in the Northern Caucasus and exempt the U.N. from VAT on local purchases. The details of the plan were not immediately available. Minister Shoigu also said Russia will open the Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia) and Makhachkala (Dagestan) airports to international aid flights.
UNHCR's emergency team today went to North Ossetia's capital, Vladikavkaz, to be on standby for deployment in Ingushetia as soon as security improves.
Another UNHCR convoy arrived in Nazran this morning bringing the total of food and other aid delivered by UNHCR to 2,500 metric tons.
Four more children under age 5 died on Monday at Tua Pukan, bringing to at least 174 the number of deaths from various ailments since September at the camp outside Kupang. We have deployed a 41-member medical team to this facility. While UNHCR's main focus in West Timor is repatriation, we are concerned about the appalling conditions at Tua Pukan. There are a number of makeshift camps in West Timor and we are afraid that with the onset of the rainy season, conditions will be similar to those in Tua Pukan. Unfortunately we have not had full access to these camps for security reasons.
One positive development in the security situation is the agreement in principle by Indonesian military authorities to separate the militias from the refugees. In our meetings in Kupang, local military and provincial officials have offered a facility to shelter militias and their families as well as former and active army members. The director of UNHCR's Asia bureau is now in Kupang and is discussing this with officials there. He is proceeding to the border town of Atambua tomorrow.
On the mass information front, we are scheduled to show a video presentation at Nai Bonat camp outside Kupang this afternoon. There are more "go-and-see visits" being conducted not only from camps in Kupang but from the border areas as well to counter misinformation by militias opposed to repatriation.
Return figures for today remain low, with only 314 Timorese going back overland through two crossings from Atambua and Betun along the border with East Timor. So far, more than 113,000 refugees have returned since the UNHCR-IOM repatriation program started in October.
Details on the situation in Tua Pukan camp as well as discussions on security issues are in yesterday's Timor Emergency Update.
This document is intended for public information purposes only. It is not an official UN document.