December 22, 1999

New York/Paris, December 23, 1999 — The international humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today called on the Georgian authorities to re-open their border with Chechnya to allow civilians caught up in the fighting to escape Russian bombardments. The border has been closed since December 10.

Because the capacity of the Georgian authorities to accommodate large numbers of refugees is limited, MSF also calls upon third countries to offer temporary asylum to Chechen refugees. There are about 5,000 Chechen refugees currently in Georgia.

The last groups of refugees to arrive in Georgia say that they left their homes in the region of Itum Kale on December 10 to escape shelling in the area. Unable to cross the Georgian border, some turned back toward their homes, while about 100 people amassed in a "no man’s land" between Chechnya and Georgia.

It wasn’t until Friday, December 17, when the no man’s land came under direct fire, that Georgian border guards agreed to allow the women and children in the group to cross the border as a one-time measure. By then the refugees had spent several nights in the open in harsh conditions, during which time two infants reportedly died. After another bombardment the following day, the Georgian authorities agreed to let the men through. According to the most recent arrivals, several thousand more people are still looking for a way out of southern Chechnya but no one else has been allowed to cross since.

"By closing its border, the Georgian authorities are denying refugees their right to seek safety in the face of life-threatening danger; this is unacceptable," says Denis Gouzerh, MSF Head of Mission in Georgia. "However, Georgia is already home to refugees from the Abkhazian conflict so its ability to cope with refugees from Chechnya is limited; the international community must assist."

MSF is the world's largest independent international medical relief agency aiding victims of armed conflict, epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters, and others who lack health care due to geographic remoteness or ethnic marginalization in more than 80 countries.

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