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Tuesday, November 16, 1999 Published at 13:47 GMT

World: Europe

Health fears for Chechen children

This family from Grozny faces a hard winter under canvas in Ingushetia

Medical workers say the health of Chechen refugees who have fled to neighbouring Ingushetia is deteriorating rapidly as Moscow continues to pound the breakaway republic.

Battle for the Caucasus
At least 80% of children living in refugee camps on the border are suffering from anaemia and/or malnutrition, according to one doctor.

The alarming report came as thousands of Russian troops poured into Chechnya for a threatened offensive on the capital, Grozny.

The BBC's Andrew Harding reports: "It's hard to forget the war when you're still living on the edge of it"
Correspondents described how refugees sheltering in Ingushetia looked on in fear as a massive military convoy passed straight through their camp, heading for their homeland.

European Union foreign ministers condemned Russia's "disproportionate and indiscriminate" use of force on Monday.

But President Boris Yeltsin vowed to stand by the seven-week-long military campaign which Moscow says is aimed at wiping out separatist rebels.

Click here to see a map of the region

Mr Yeltsin has decided to go in person to a key European summit this week to defend Russia's position.

He will tell world leaders at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe they have no right to blame Russia for destroying ''bandits and terrorists'' on its territory.

"We will not stop [the offensive] as long as there is even one terrorist [in Chechnya]," he added in comments quoted by Interfax.


Some 200,000 refugees have fled their homes since Russia launched its military campaign in Chechnya.

Medical staff treating refugees in Ingushetia say anaemia, caused by the poor diet and lack of food, is widespread.

[ image: A refugee camp near Sleptsovskaya, Ingushetia]
A refugee camp near Sleptsovskaya, Ingushetia
This is depressing the children's immune systems and leaving them even more vulnerable to disease.

With the onset of winter, conditions in the camps are set to deteriorate rapidly.

There are just two foreign aid workers treating the refugees. Samuel Marie-Fanon, from the aid agency Medecins du Monde, said many of the very young and the very old were suffering from respiratory diseases because of overcrowding.

Medecins du Monde says six tonnes of emergency supplies, enough to treat 40,000 people for three months, has been held up in customs by Russian officials.

These bureaucratic obstructions have deterred other aid agencies from operating in the region, compounded by the fear of kidnapping by local bandit gangs.

Massive convoy

On Monday, Chechen refugees watched as Russian troops poured into the breakaway province through their camp.

The convoy included at least 300 military vehicles, tanks, armoured personnel carriers and scores of multiple launch rocket systems which can devastate vast areas of territory.

When reporters asked the soldiers where they were going, they shouted: ''To Grozny!''. Asked if they were scared, they answered "No!" and slapped the side of a missile launcher.

The BBC's Peter Biles: "Russia is playing down the scale of the crisis"
Chechnya's designated foreign minister Ilyas Akhmadov told Reuters news agency on Monday that 4,000 civilians and 1,600 Chechen troops had been killed.

Mr Akhmadov said the Russian were "shooting just about anything that moves".

[ image: The elderly are particularly vulnerable]
The elderly are particularly vulnerable
Moscow says reports of civilian deaths are exaggerated.

The refugee situation will come under further scrutiny on Tuesday when UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata arrives in Moscow.

Her visit will include a trip to the conflict zone. It is not clear whether this will be to Chechnya itself or Ingushetia.

Our correspondent Mike Williams says few of the refugees have any great affection for the Chechen war lords fighting in their name, but they deplore the Russian tactics which have terrorised so many thousands of people.

Moscow bomb

Moscow says its campaign is aimed at wiping out Islamic rebels who have twice invaded Dagestan.

It also accuses Chechen militants of bomb attacks on apartment blocks in Russian towns, which have left 300 people dead.

Russia has mounted a massive security operation since the bombings. On Monday, security forces evacuated a block of flats in Moscow after discovering an explosive device equivalent to 200 grammes of TNT.

Chechnya and the rebels have denied responsibility for the bombings.

[ image:  ]

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