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Thursday, November 18, 1999 Published at 08:46 GMT

World: Europe

UN envoy meets Chechen refugees

Sadako Ogata is to see the plight of displaced Chechens first-hand

The head of the United Nations refugee agency, Sadako Ogata, has arrived in the Russian republic of Ingushetia to see for herself the plight of the Chechen refugees.

Battle for the Caucasus
"I came here to see and listen to refugees," she told reporters before heading out on a tour of the makeshift camps.

Moscow said on Wednesday that the high commissioner would also be able to visit Russian-controlled territory in Chechnya itself. If she is allowed in, she will be the first senior member of a world agency to visit since the Russian offensive started 10 weeks ago.

Some 185,000 of the estimated 210,000 Chechen refugees are thought to have fled to Ingushetia to try to escape the fighting. Russia has been criticised for denying them vital aid.

Some refugees have taken shelter with families, but the rest are living in tents, railway carriages, or abandoned buildings. Temperatures overnight are falling to -10C.

Click here to see a map of the region

The BBC's Michael Williams: Mrs Ogata has not yet given the Chechens what they hoped for most"
The BBC's Mike Williams on the Chechen-Ingushetia border says Mrs Ogata will find people cold and hungry, many of them sick, some of them wounded.

They are desperate for help and hope international recognition of their plight will help bring the food and drugs, the fuel and shelter that they need.

On her visit to Moscow, Mrs Ogata told Russian ministers that the UN was ready to help.

But Russia's leaders deny there is a humanitarian crisis. They say there is no need for massive international aid.

[ image: Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, left, and Sadako Ogata]
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, left, and Sadako Ogata
Emergency Affairs Minister Sergei Shoygu, who met Mrs Ogata on Wednesday, said the refugees would be able to return homes by next February.

He said 25,000 people would return 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."

In Moscow, where Mrs Ogata also met Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, she said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan understood Moscow's need to fight terrorism, but was concerned about the humanitarian situation.

"I conveyed the secretary-general's concerns and understanding, his appreciation of the difficulty in controlling and tackling terrorism, the importance of caring for the civilian population," she said.

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