MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Wednesday it wanted to close "tent cities" housing tens of thousands of Chechen refugees by late December, prompting concern among rights groups about the safety of refugees made to go home.
More than 70,000 Chechen refugees, up to 30,000 of them living in tents, are refusing to return to the war-torn homeland they fled after 1999, when Russia began its second post-Soviet campaign to crush the southern province's bid for independence.
"There is an intention to send these people back to their native lands in the nearest future, perhaps in December," Aleksei Vasin, spokesman for the pro-Russian Chechen administration, told Reuters from the capital Grozny.
The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation has accused Moscow of trying to force the refugees out by cutting off their water and food supplies in the camps in Ingushetia province, bordering Chechnya.
The Chechen Salvation Committee, a local human rights body working with the refugees, said senior Ingush officials had visited the tent cities this week to urge people to move out before the camps are closed down on December 20.
"The officials told them that otherwise Russian troops would have to deport them by force," it said in a statement.
One refugee family said it was leaving for the Chechen capital Grozny along with other 30 families after local officials threatened to start burning their tents on December 1.
Vasin denied that refugees were unwilling to leave the camps.
"It is not true that the refugees refuse to go home," he said. "I believe about 80 percent of them would eventually go back to Chechnya, where we have built housing in 13 areas to accommodate them."
Igor Yunash of Russia's Federal Migration Service told reporters over 6,000 refugees were expected to return to Chechnya soon but that those who wanted to stay would be given homes in Ingushetia.
Security was stepped up around the camps after Chechen separatists took over 800 people hostage in a Moscow theatre in October demanding Russian forces quit their homeland.
The authorities suspect the camps of aiding rebels in the province, which won de facto independence from Russia in 1996.
President Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, sent Russian forces back three years ago to reassert Moscow's authority.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet