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No "Humanitarian Space" For Aid Groups in Chechnya

But Aid May Not Be Enough, Briefers Warn

(Washington, DC--September 24, 2003) Experts on the war in Chechnya told an RFE/RL audience last week that international humanitarian aid organizations continue to be blocked from assisting Chechen refugees because Russian officials deny them an adequate and safe "humanitarian space" in which to work.

Dr. Morten Rostrup, International President of Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) detailed the conditions in which MSF has been forced to operate in Chechnya and the surrounding republics. Rostrup said that his and other aid groups have been denied access to what he called the "humanitarian space" to act that is required during wartime under United Nations Security Council resolutions and acknowledged as standard international practice. In the Russian Federation, Rostrup said, there is an "environment of insecurity" which has led MSF to "suspend its work in Chechnya and Ingushetia" and "withdraw from Dagestan."

MSF's withdrawal from the the North Caucasus was in part due to the kidnapping of MSF volunteer Arjan Erkel in August 2002 in Dagestan. Rostrup and MSF believe that the Russian government could do more to find Erkel, but so far it has done little. Rostrup said it was "suspicious" that Erkel was under surveillance by Russian police at the time he was kidnapped, yet they did not intervene to stop his abductors, nor did checkpoint guards stop them from leaving the capital of Dagestan with Erkel. Rostrup hopes that more pressure will be put on President Vladimir Putin to "take his responsibility" and urged that the issue be brought up by U.S. officials at the upcoming Camp David summit.

Rostrup also said that the Russian government is denying Chechen refugees access to adequate facilities in Ingushetia, and forcing them to return to the war zone in Chechnya through intimidation and even the closure of refugee camps, while making it difficult for MSF to provide assistance to its clinics in Chechnya. The overall environment, Rostrup said, is "a very difficult, very deplorable situation."

Aslan Doukaev, Director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty North Caucasus Service, said that he feared that "the sum of all Chechnya's problems is too much for international organizations to handle," although he urged the West to "reexamine" its view of the Caucasus -- "to know what's on the ground."

Doukaev discussed the long-term problems faced by people in the region -- such as continuing high levels of radiation all over Chechnya and the failure of authorities to do anything about it. He said that despite a lack of definitive proof, there is an abundance of ‚Äúcircumstantial evidence‚ÄĚ that radioactive contamination from 56 former Soviet scientific sites in Chechnya that used nuclear or radioactive material is causing an increase in health problems. Doukaev also cited a general increase in health problems such as a rise in premature births and a rise in the mortality rate for children under 12. Many children and adults suffer from psychological problems, with as many as 75% of the residents of Chechnya's capital, Grozny, in need of psychiatric help.

Doukaev also noted that more people died as a result of landmines in Chechnya in 2002 than in any other area in the world, as documented by the International Campaign To Ban Landmines. However, Doukaev said, international efforts to solve the problem have not been effective. The only international organization active in the de-mining effort in Chechnya, "Halo Trust," was expelled by Russian officials in 1999, and the U.S. has only provided $100,000 in funding for de-mining in Chechnya since 1993.

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