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UNHCR Briefing Notes: North Caucasus, Timor, Liberian return

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 left
Ron Redmond

1. North Caucasus

The 15th UNHCR convoy of relief items, comprising 19 trucks with 285 MT of food, arrived this morning (8.30 a.m. local time) in Ingushetia from Stavropol.

One truck with 1,600 pairs of winter shoes provided by the Danish Refugee Council was sent with this convoy.

With today's convoy, UNHCR has sent a total of 2,128 tons of food and more than 1,000 tons of non-food items (excluding tents) for the IDPs in Ingushetia, since the beginning of October. The total value of these relief items is US $1,237,215.

The total number of IDPs registered by the Ingush Migration Service is 246,219 persons. Since 1 November, a total of 82,683 IDPs have moved from Chechnya to Ingushetia, and 35,730 from Ingushetia to Chechnya through the Kavkaz checkpoint, according to officials. Yesterday (13 December), 1,408 people went to Ingushetia and 915 to Chechnya.

A second safe passage was opened on Saturday, following the route of the highway from Grozny to Rostov on Don. The first safe passage leads to the northern part of Chechnya. So far, however, only a few hundred IDPs have managed to use these corridors to escape. According to various sources of information 15,000-40,000 civilians remain in Grozny.

According to Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, some 67,000 IDPs have already returned to Chechnya, the vast majority to their places of origin. An official of the Federal Migration Service (Mr. V. Kalamanov), placed the returnee figure at between 30,000 and 40,000 people.

Prime Minister V. Putin, in one of his latest interviews, mentioned that the current and previous conflict in Chechnya had driven 220,000 ethnic Russians and 550,000 Chechens out of the republic. According the census in 1989 the population of Chechnya was 1,080,000.

2. Timor

After an all time low last week, this week the repatriation operation from West Timor is picking up. Monday and today (Tuesday), 2,137 refugees have returned home by air and by land, according to UNHCR and IOM. Yesterday, 1,122 returned to East Timor and today another 1,015 went back, the majority departing from Atambua in organised overland repatriation.

Hopes for the speedy return of East Timorese refugees in militia-controlled camps in West Timor have been raised by Sunday's border meeting between CNRT president Xanana Gusmao and militia leader, Joao Da Silva Tavares. Yesterday, Tavares announced the disbanding of his militia group. At a ceremony held at Haliwen refugee settlement, which was attended by 2,000 militiamen, Tavares urged his supporters to abandon violence and return home to pursue their objectives by peaceful means.

UNHCR field officers in Atambua are predicting a significant increase in the number of returnees in the next few days. However, they say torrential rains are washing away roads and bridges, further complicating the repatriation operation.

For the second week running, UNHCR staff have been entering Naibonat, Noel Baki and Tua Pukan camps in West Timor without any problems. In Naibonat, staff distributed 800 family kits to vulnerable refugees. The kits contain sleeping mats, kitchen sets, plastic buckets, jerry cans and plastic sheets.

While some militia intimidation continues, there has been a noticeable relaxation of tensions in some camps in West Timor in recent days, according to UNHCR staff

As part of its mass information campaign to promote repatriation, UNHCR has screened a video, entitled "Back Home," in Naibonat camp. Although UNHCR was told that few refugees would attend the screening, some 400 persons turned up to see the video. The video features interviews with CNRT President Gusmao, Bishop Belo, UNTAET Chief Sergio Vieira de Mello and INTERFET Commander Cosgrove. The refugees cheered when Bishop Belo appeared on the screen. The question and answer session that ensued revealed interest in repatriation but also concerns about safety upon return. The 20-minute video was shown on four consecutive days in Naibonat and will be used in other sites to inform refugees about repatriation and conditions in East Timor. UNHCR is bolstering its capacity to continue using video, printed matter, radio announcements and presentations as part of its information campaign.

Heavy rains have also had an impact on the rate of repatriation. High water levels are making roads already in poor condition impassable. Large vehicles used for returnee movements, secondary movements within East Timor and the delivery of relief supplies have contributed to the degradation of roads.

Since 7 October, 116,566 people have returned from West to the East Timor, 74,581 in an organized manner with the assistance of UNHCR and IOM, while 41,985 did it spontaneously.

3. Liberian Return

On Sunday, UNHCR completed a three-day operation to repatriate the last Liberian volunteers from Sierra Leone, using an aircraft and helicopters to ferry 213 refugees back from the towns of Bo, Kenema and the capital, Freetown. In all, over 1,800 of the approximately 8,000 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone have elected to return home, most of these in 1999 after fighting rocked Freetown early in the year, cutting off aid to refugee sites. UNHCR has operated both aircraft and a boat from Sierra Leone.

UNHCR has also appealed to the governments of Liberia and Guinea to reopen the countries' common border to returning refugees. Border posts were shut in August after security incidents in northern Liberia, and no repatriation convoys have been operated since.

Several hundred Liberians in N'zerekore, southeastern Guinea, have now told UNHCR they want to go home, and UNHCR has reminded the governments that it is scheduled to end its assistance to returning refugees on 31 December, 1999. UNHCR's proposals include transferring Liberians from Guinea to Liberia through neighboring Cote d'Ivoire. More than 13,000 Liberians had repatriated on UNHCR convoys during 1999 from Guinea before the August incidents, bringing the total from that country since 1997 to 75,000. Returns from Cote d'Ivoire, the other main country of asylum, have continued throughout.

An estimated 340,000 of 480,000 Liberians have returned with UNHCR help and on their own since 1997. Many of the remaining groups will likely return spontaneously, while UNHCR is looking into solutions for those who have said they do not want to go home.

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