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UNHCR Briefing Notes: North Caucasus, East Timor

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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 left
Ron Redmond

1. North Caucasus

This week's first UNHCR convoy to Chechnya has now returned to base after successfully distributing 10 truckloads of aid to Grozny. UNHCR and other agencies will now do an assessment of this first "trial run" convoy - carried out in cooperation with the Russian Ministry for Emergencies (EMERCOM) and the local administration - before deciding on any next step.

Judging from the initial reports from our monitors who accompanied the convoy, the needs inside Grozny are great. The monitors describe a devastated and still insecure wasteland, where only 21,000 civilians remain, according to local registration lists. The monitors reported continued fighting in certain areas of Grozny. Bodies of civilian casualties are still being recovered from collapsed buildings and mines and unexploded grenades are a problem in many areas. EMERCOM has a team of ordnance experts working on securing these areas.

The remaining inhabitants said that in addition to the lack of security, their greatest problems are lack of food, health concerns (in particular TB), and a shortage of warm clothing. Food is supplied daily at four soup kitchens and distribution points in the city, but officials and local residents told our monitors that there is great demand for more supplies.

The 45 tons of food delivered in this week's first convoy were supplied to the Staropromyshlovskyj district of Grozny, where there are some 14,000 civilians registered, mostly women, elderly and young children. Since there is no regular gas, electricity or water supply in Grozny, the bulk food items (flour, peas and grain) were not distributed directly to beneficiaries, but to soup kitchens and bakeries that could prepare the food and then distribute it. A bakery was supplied with 25 tons of flour, enough to produce some 52,000 loaves of bread - some 7,600 of which have already been distributed. UNHCR monitors also saw other bread available for sale in local markets in Grozny.

Outside of Grozny there is very limited civilian traffic on the roads, and a large number of military checkpoints. In rural areas between the border and Grozny, monitors saw some destroyed villages and sporadically damaged houses.

According to official government sources, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Chechnya is more than 125,000, including an estimated 115,000 who are staying with host families and 10,500 others in camps.

In neighboring Ingushetia, officials say there are more than 176,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps, settlements and among host families and their situation remains difficult. But there is regular distribution of food and non-food items by UNHCR, other agencies, local authorities and EMERCOM aimed at covering at least the basic needs of the entire IDP population. Also, local communities continue to support and provide crucial assistance to IDPs in their areas.

Most IDPs express a strong desire to return home, but are reluctant to do so because of continuing uncertainties over the security situation in Chechnya and because of the widespread destruction of homes and apartments. There are numerous reports from IDPs of continued fighting, abuses and harassment of the civilian population by Russian troops.

UNHCR has now sent a total of 44 convoys to the North Caucasus, most of them (35) to Ingushetia. The latest arrived in Nazran, Ingushetia, today.

2. Timor

Some 150,000 East Timorese refugees have voluntarily returned to East Timor since UNHCR's repatriation program, with assistance from IOM, began on October 8. Over the last 48 hours, there have been four incidents of unexplained shootings along the border, apparently resulting in low numbers of returns yesterday (68) and today (94) between Atambua in West Timor and Batugade in East Timor.

But UNHCR is encouraged by statements from the Indonesian president during a visit to West Timor on Tuesday following his landmark trip to East Timor. President Wahid said he wants peace in East and West Timor and that all of the East Timorese in West Timor who wish to return to East Timor may do so freely. There are ex-militias among the 250,000 East Timorese who went into West Timor after the August 30 vote in East. They oppose repatriation. The Indonesians are aware this problem has to be resolved if voluntary returns in large numbers are to take place.

The Indonesian military agrees with the United Nations that the family reunions at the neutral zone along the border are helping the repatriation effort. The reunions are expected to resume tomorrow after the Indonesian military gave assurances that appropriate security measures will be put in place on the West Timor side of the border. UNHCR is closely watching the reunions, which ostensibly have helped increase the number of returns.

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