UN allowed to monitor Chechen refugees

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AS PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin prepared to defend Russia's actions in Chechnya at today's security summit, Moscow said it would allow Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to go there to correct the West's "distorted" view of the crisis.

She met Igor Ivanov, Foreign Minister, and Sergei Shoigu, Minister for Emergencies, in Moscow yesterday before the two Russians joined Mr Yeltsin for the flight to Istanbul and the summit. Striving to show that the world understood Russia's anxiety, Mrs Ogata said she had come to Moscow "to convey the [UN] secretary general's appreciation of the difficulty controlling and tackling terrorism and the importance of caring for the civilian population".

The West has criticised Russia for overreacting to incursions by Islamic guerrillas and bombs in Moscow by launching a full-scale war against Chechnya that has led to an exodus of 200,000 refugees.

Today, Mrs Ogata will go to Ingushetia, which has been swamped with refugees, and to parts of northern Chechnya back under Russian control, to which a few refugees are starting to make a tentative return.

Mr Ivanov said Russia had nothing to hide and was ready to "inform the world community of how things really stood". Mr Shoigu denied the war had led to a humanitarian catastrophe and said Russia was quite capable of looking after the refugees itself.

Nevertheless, complaints a day earlier from Russia's Social Affairs Minister, Valentina Matviyenko, that the West was failing to match its words with concrete help for the refugees had suggested Russia did want international assistance.

The UN is the vehicle most acceptable to Russia, which has a permanent Security Council seat.

Mrs Ogata said the UN was preparing a plan to help the refugees through the winter. The Russians promised to do their best to guarantee the security of UN workers who went to the Caucasus, where kidnapping is rife. The UN has not operated in Chechnya since 13 November, when two locally hired UN workers died in a Russian air raid.

The Russian Federal Migration Service says there are 211,600 refugees. The Russians eased the situation somewhat this week by allowing a trainload of refugees to join relatives in Moscow.

But that still left thousands of refugees in unheated, stationary railway carriages or tents in snowy fields, where bread is the only food and cold, if not hunger, could soon become a mass killer.