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Russian Gov’t Dismantles Refugee Camp

December 3, 2002

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VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia (AP) _ The Russian government dismantled a tent camp Tuesday that housed 1,500 Chechen refugees, ingoring appeals from the U.N. refugee agency not to send them home.

Most of the Chechens returned to their war-torn republic after the tents were torn down in the Iman refugee camp in Ingushetia, a Russian republic bordering Chechnya.

The few who refused were given temporary accommodation elsewhere, a spokesman for Ingushetia’s Interior Ministry said.

The Moscow government insists the refugees are returning home voluntarily. But Russia’s leading human rights group, Memorial, said Tuesday that authorities had pressured the refugees to leave by threatening to cut electricity and gas supplies to the camp.

``Do you call that voluntary return?″ asked Memorial activist Akhmed Barakhoyev, a frequent visitor to the camp.

Russia has announced plans to close all refugee camps in the region over the coming months.

The United Nations estimates that about 20,000 refugees are living in tent camps in Ingushetia, and another 110,000 are living with relatives or squatting there.

Evicting the refugees would bolster the Kremlin’s claim that Chechnya’s three-year war for secession is winding down. It would also put Moscow on a collision course with the United Nations, which has advised refugees not to return to Chechnya until the violence subsides.

``We are extremely concerned over the well-being of displaced Chechens,″ Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva. ``We urged the Russian authorities not to close the camp. Unfortunately our pleas have been ignored and for all we know the camp is now virtually empty.″

Janowski said authorities in Ingushetia had barred UNHCR representatives from entering the Iman camp ``under the pretext that their visit would give displaced people there false hopes.″

Russian authorities also have barred UNHCR from replacing worn-out or damaged camps at other refugee camps in Ingushetia and deployed troops around them, Janowski said. ``This is reportedly causing high anxiety among the residents, particularly children who are frightened by the proximity of the soldiers.″

Skirmishes and mine explosions are a daily routine in the capital, Grozny, as the rebels continue to mount regular raids against the federal forces and pro-Moscow Chechen officials.

Ramzan Gichikayev, deputy chief of the Moscow-appointed Chechen administration’s state property committee, was kidnapped from his house early Tuesday by unidentified masked gunmen, the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies reported.

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