Aid agencies pull out after workers shot

All the main international aid agencies were yesterday withdrawing staff from Chechnya in protest at the killing on Tuesday of six foreigners working for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the troubled Caucasian region.

Russian politicians and Chechen separatist leaders alike condemned the night-time shooting of the medics as they slept in their hospital and vowed that the incident, evidently a political provocation, would not be allowed to disrupt the region's tentative progress to peace.

The bodies of the aid workers - five women, from Norway, Canada, Spain and New Zea-land, and one man from The Netherlands - were moved initially to Nalchik in neighbouring Kabardino-Balkaria after the attack by unknown gunmen, who stole nothing from the hospital. Some 70 surviving Red Cross workers also left, heading ultimately for Switzerland and their home countries, and the hospital in the Chechen village of Novye Atagi was abandoned to the locals.

Yesterday, other aid agencies were evacuating staff through Nazran in Ingushetia, another of the tiny ethnic republics on Russia's southern rim.

"We have suspended our activities in Chechnya in solidarity with our ICRC colleagues," said Aleth Jaurou of Medecins sans Frontieres, whose doctors were among the first to reach the region after the Russian military intervention two years ago this month.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also froze its work with some 80,000 people displaced in the two-year conflict, which has killed tens of thousands.

Local doctors were distressed by the departure. "It will be a big catastrophe for us," said Lyuba Archakova, head doctor of Hospital Number Four in the Chechen capital, Grozny. "We just don't have the resources to help people. The foreign aid organisations were bringing us all our equipment and medicine."

President Boris Yeltsin continues to convalesce after his heart operation in November but Russia's Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, lost no time in denouncing the shooting, the worst ever single attack on the ICRC: "The Russian government appreciates the humanitarian activities of the Red Cross and decisively condemns this cruel and senseless crime."

Ruslan Katuyev, a minister in the separatist coalition running Chechnya now that Russian troops are leaving, called the attack "an intentional and plan-ned provocation aimed at can- celling our elections for a president and parliament". The vote is set for 27 January.

A fragile peace was achieved this autumn after Moscow and the Chechens agreed to shelve for five years the highly sensitive issue of whether the region should have full independence from Russia. But both sides speak of a "third force" seeking to derail the peace process. Chechens suspect the motives of hardliners in the Russian military and security services while the Russians worry that moderate separatists such as Aslan Maskhadov and Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev cannot control their militant former comrades.