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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 19:40 GMT

World: Europe

Chechen refugees 'home by February'

Russia says the refugees will all be home by February

Russian Emergency Affairs Minister Sergei Shoygu says the nearly 200,000 refugees who have fled Russia's military offensive in Chechnya will return to their homes by next February.

Battle for the Caucasus
His comments come as United Nations refugee chief Sadako Ogata prepares visit Chechnya on Thursday to see for herself the humanitarian crisis caused by Russia's offensive.

Mr Shoygu was speaking in Istanbul on the eve of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe summit, likely to be dominated by criticism of Russian actions in Chechnya.

He announced a timetable, under which 25,000 people would return to their homes by 1 December, 100,000 to "liberated areas" by 25 December and all refugees would be able to go home by 1 February.

Asked whether that meant the Russian offensive would be over by February, Mr Shoygu said: "I have said what I have said. You can take your guess."

'Distorted view'

On Wednesday, Ms Ogata met Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

"We will be travelling to the field ... in order to get a more exact understanding of the developments there," she said.

The UN high commissioner for refugees will visit Russian-controlled territory in the rebel republic.

Mr Ivanov said he hoped the trip would help correct the West's "distorted view" of what was happening in the region.

"If today you listened to the Western mass media, you would understand that the terrorists who are up to their elbows in blood are the victims," Mr Ivanov said.

The BBC's Mike Williams reports from Ingushetia on the worsening plight of the Chechen refugees
He said he hoped the trip would help Ms Ogata to "objectively evaluate the situation and co-ordinate possible humanitarian aid which could be granted to resolve problems which we have".

"We aren't hiding anything. We're prepared to completely inform the UN secretary-general and world community of how things really stand," he said.

Some 210,000 Chechens have fled the fighting since Russia began its military offensive on 5 September.

In the latest fighting, Russian troops are reported to have captured a Chechen stronghold in the west of the republic.

Federal forces backed by armoured personnel carriers took control of the village of Bamut after an intensive bombardment lasting several weeks, Russian military officials said.

International pressure

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke: "The Russians insist their methods are justified"
Ms Ogata's visit will coincide with the start of a key security summit in Istanbul where Moscow is set for a showdown with Western powers bitterly critical of Russia's offensive.

US President Bill Clinton is expected to express fierce criticism of Russia's offensive in Chechnya.

He will tell President Yeltsin that Moscow's policy on Chechnya is a "dead end" that needs third-party mediation, the Washington Post has reported, quoting National Security Advisor Sandy Berger.

Click here to see a map of the region

[ image: The fighting continues to drive people from Chechnya]
The fighting continues to drive people from Chechnya
For her part, the UN's Human Rights chief, Mary Robinson, has said she is disturbed by "serious violations of human rights and of humanitarian law" in the northern Caucasus region.

She said Moscow should "take immediate measures to protect the civilian population" in Chechnya.

She called for humanitarian corridors to be established to allow civilians to leave towns and cities that are under attack, safe transportation for evacuees and humanitarian and medical assistance for refugees and Chechen civilians.

The influx of refugees to Ingushetia was straining its resources, Ms Robinson said, citing doctors reports which noted that 80% of refugee children were "suffering from anaemia and malnutrition".

The situation in Ingushetia - which has been inundated by about 185,000 refugees - has been described as "catastrophic" by one Russian human rights organisation.

Situation under 'state control'

[ image: Mary Robinson has added her voice to the demands for action]
Mary Robinson has added her voice to the demands for action
Russian human rights organisation Memorial carried out a joint mission with Amnesty International to Ingushetia last week.

"The situation can be classed as a humanitarian catastrophe," Memorial spokesman Oleg Orlev said.

"We are afraid to imagine what will happen in winter," he said.

The temperature is already dropping to -10C at night.

However, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvyenko told Tass: "What happened in Kosovo was truly a humanitarian catastrophe. In Russia the situation is entirely under state control."

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