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UN Refugee Agency Concerned Over Forced Return of Chechens

The United Nations refugee agency has said it is concerned that Russian authorities may try to force Chechen refugees in Georgia to go back to Chechnya. The UNHCR says it is not safe for the refugees to go home.

The U.N. refugee agency says it is closely monitoring the situation for Chechen refugees in the Pankisi valley area of northwestern Georgia. More than 7,000 refugees have been living there since they fled the conflict in Chechnya in 1999.

UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler has said the vast majority of them are women, children and elderly. He says about 80 percent of the refugees live with Georgian host families from the Kist ethnic group.

"There have been reports that the authorities from Russia want to engage in visits in this area to encourage people to go back. Obviously we want to ensure that any returns are voluntary, and the planned visits by authorities that were set this last week have been postponed due to heavy snows and bad weather. But, clearly our message to both the Tblisi and Moscow governments is that any returns should be voluntary," he said.

Mr. Kessler said the UNHCR welcomes recent statements from the Georgian authorities that the refugees will not be forced to return to Chechnya. He said the agency cannot encourage the Chechens to go home at this time because of the ongoing conflict.

He said many refugees have told aid workers they did not want to return to Chechnya because they still fear for their security. He said the authorities in Tblisi say they are aware of these concerns.

"There has been a lot of pressure in the area. Some of the local residents in the Akhmeta area have indicated some hostility, some refugee fatigue. And there have been some threatening incidents, some paramilitary-type bands have formed in that area. These have recently been disbanded. This is a positive sign that the Tblisi authorities have paid a very positive role, and we want this to continue," he said.

Mr. Kessler has said the UNHCR was forced to delay distribution of humanitarian aid for several weeks because of the tensions. But, he has said deliveries to both refugees and host families now have resumed.

Another 150,000 Chechens are displaced in the Russian republic of Ingushetia. Many have been there for three years.