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Claire Doole in Geneva
"The UN refugee agency has been waiting for more than a month"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 21 December, 1999, 13:05 GMT
UN returns to help Chechens

helicopter Russian generals are admitting to casualties

International UN aid workers are to return to areas bordering war-torn Chechnya for the first time in two years after Russia agreed to provide heavily-armed escorts.

Battle for the Caucasus
A UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesman in Geneva said staff would travel to Ingushetia - which has taken the bulk of the Chechen refugees fleeing Russian air strikes - on Wednesday or Thursday.

The agency pulled out international staff nearly two years ago after a series of kidnappings in the region. During the Chechen crisis, its aid effort has been in the hands of local staff, who have been distributing food and blankets.

The Russian security offer means trained staff such as water and sanitation engineers can now work on the Ingush-Chechen border. However security fears mean they will not be based there permanently. There are no plans to go into Chechnya itself.

boy and soldier A Chechen boy meets a soldier in Grozny

The UN spokesman in Geneva said it was the first time the Russians had agreed to provide heavily-armed escorts on a permanent basis for all UN agencies. The UNHCR chief, Sadako Ogata, requested the security guarantees during a visit to Moscow last month.

Ingush authorities have told the UNHCR that nearly 250,000 people fled across its border to escape fighting in Chechnya. Vladimir Kalamanov, head of Russia's Migration Service, is reported as saying 50,000 had returned to Chechnya as of 15 December.

Click here to see a map of Grozny and surrounding areas

The news of the UN return came as Russian troops and Chechen rebels clashed on the edge of the Chechen capital, Grozny, and in mountains in the south of the breakaway republic.

Both sides reported heavy fighting around Serzhen-Yurt, 30km southeast of the capital. Russia's military command said its forces were battling an estimated 500 rebels near one of two main access routes into the mountains where the Chechens have set up bases.

Chechen conflict
100,000 Russian soldiers
Russian force is three times bigger than in 1994-96
356 troops have died and 775 been wounded - Moscow
Estimated 30,000 people still in Grozny
2,500 said to have used humanitarian corridors

Interfax news agency said on Tuesday that Russian aircraft had flown 43 sorties over Chechnya in the past 24 hours, mainly striking guerrilla positions in the mountains.

On Monday, Moscow said it had opened up a new front in the mountains, sending marines into Chechnya from the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan.

The Russian military also said on Monday that it had taken control of Grozny's civilian airport, but on Tuesday state television said Russian troops had yet to enter the airport because of mines.

No deadline

Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev has denied that Russia plans to storm the capital. Russian media have reported that a commando operation to take Grozny would begin later this week, but Mr Sergeyev said no deadline had been set to seize the city.

The Russian commander in Chechnya has said he is holding back to avoid losses. Following its devastating defeat in the 1994-96 conflict, Moscow has taken a cautious approach, advancing infantry troops relatively slowly, and relying on air support and firepower to limit casualties.

Massacre denied

In a separate development, Russia denied its troops had killed civilians in Alkhan-Yurt, a few kilometres outside Grozny. Chechen sources told the BBC that 41 people had been summarily executed when the village fell into Russian hands in the first two weeks of December.

RTR state television quoted the military as saying the bodies of four young "ethnic Arabs" had been found in the village, but they had suffered battlefield wounds.

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See also:
21 Dec 99 |  Europe
Chechen businessman seeks anti-Islamist coalition
20 Dec 99 |  Europe
'Village massacre' near Grozny
19 Dec 99 |  Europe
Eyewitness: Undercover in Chechnya
18 Dec 99 |  From Our Own Correspondent
The pride of the bear
16 Dec 99 |  Europe
Chechnya: A conflict in pictures
17 Dec 99 |  Europe
Getting into Chechnya
16 Dec 99 |  Europe
Unanswered questions of Grozny battle
16 Dec 99 |  Europe
Georgia facing 'humanitarian crisis'

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