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UN: Russia Should Reduce Troops in Chechnya - 2002-01-18

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees Friday called on Russia to make the breakaway region of Chechnya safe for refugees to return home. The high commissioner visited several refugee camps near Chechnya.

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers said Chechen refugees living in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia are afraid to return because of continued fighting and harassment by Russian forces.

Mr. Lubbers wrapped up a four-day visit, during which he met with Russian officials and visited refugee camps in Ingushetia, housing some of the approximately 170,000 Chechen refugees.

"The main solution has to be to provide a situation in Chechnya, so that people feel comfortable to go home," he said.

Mr. Lubbers said he had recommended to the Russian government that they reduce the number of soldiers in the region, and get rid of some of the numerous roadblocks. He also said the Russian government must give some control of the area to Chechens.

Human rights groups have criticized the Russian military for its conduct in Chechnya, saying soldiers often harass and torture innocent civilians.

Some humanitarian organizations that work with Chechen refugees say it is conditions like these that make it dangerous for refugees to return home.

Earlier this week, the aid organization Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) voiced concerns that the Russian government will force many refugees to return to Chechnya. The Russian government is currently building a refugee facility in the capital, Grozny, which will be finished in a few months. It is intended to house some of the refugees currently living in Ingushetia.

Mr. Lubbers said his organization would only support a voluntary return, and added that he had received assurances from Russian officials that refugees would not be forced to return to Chechnya.

But Mr. Lubbers also called on Chechens themselves to eliminate what he called foreign terrorists.

"It's very key that the Chechens themselves agree, in their own society, with their own elders, with their own systems, to decide that we want to stop the import of violence and strange elements to our culture," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that many of the people fighting in Chechnya are members of international terrorist groups, such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

Mr. Lubbers said he believes Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov is not a terrorist, as the Russian government contends, but is someone with whom Moscow can negotiate a peace treaty.