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Officials block Chechen refugee camp gate
( 2003-09-25 11:15) (Agencies)

Police have barred humanitarian workers and other outsiders from a Chechen refugee camp in Ingushetia in what some refugees see as part of an effort to forcibly relocate them back to neighboring Chechnya.

The prohibition comes as a resident of the Bella tent camp near the village of Ordzhonikidzevskaya said Wednesday that police cut power and gas supplies two days earlier. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concern, saying gas, power and water supplies to the camp had been intermittent since Sept. 17.

Ivan Pomeshchenko, the head of the Ingushetia branch of the Federal Migration Service, said that last week he barred outsiders from entering the camp for security reasons after suicide bombings and other attacks in areas near Chechnya.

Pomeshchenko, who spoke to The Associated Press at his office in the city of Nazran, denied that the entry restrictions were part of a plan to force the refugees back to Chechnya in advance of the Oct. 5 regional presidential election.

The Kremlin has touted the election as part of its effort to bring peace and stability to the region after nearly a decade of war and chaos. Russian officials have encouraged refugees to return to Chechnya, in an apparent attempt to show that life there is returning to normal, but have denied coercing them to leave.

Many refugees say they are afraid to return to Chechnya. Four years after Russian troops entered the region, beginning the second war against separatists in a decade, rebels mount daily attacks while Russian forces target suspected rebel positions and conduct security sweeps that rights groups say have been fraught with abuses of civilians.

"They want to move us to Chechnya before the elections, and then no one will need us," said Ruslan Dzhabrailov, a Bella resident interviewed in Nazran.

He said Pomeshchenko and other officials visited the camp Monday, escorted by police officers who cut electricity and gas supplies and began removing latrines.

Dzhabrailov said women in the camp tried to stop police from cutting gas supplies, and that two of them were beaten in a brawl that ensued and were treated at a hospital.

Police guarding the entrance to the camp refused to let journalists in Wednesday, saying special permission was needed. There were no such restrictions earlier.

Pomeshchenko said authorities told international humanitarian organizations they could distribute food and other aid to refugees outside the camps.

He said he barred outsiders from entering other camps in the region as well. However, aid agencies complained specifically about Bella.

The UNHCR said Tuesday that recent measures at the camp have increased fears among inhabitants that they will be forced back to Chechnya.

In Geneva, the UNHCR said access for aid agencies remained intermittent. The U.N. refugee agency filed official complaints Friday about the lack of access, and a staff member was allowed into the camp Monday. However, other agencies were denied access, it said.

The UNHCR estimates the number of refugees in Ingushetia at about 77,000, over 11,000 of whom live in camps and the rest in temporary settlements or private accommodations. Usam Baisayev, a Nazran-based activist for the Russian human rights group Memorial, said the Bella camp houses over 1,150 people.

Russian and international human right groups have questioned the fairness of the coming election amid continuing violence, allegations of campaign machinations and the withdrawal of leading challengers to Chechnya's Moscow-appointed acting president, Akhmad Kadyrov.

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