MOSCOW - The acting chief of Chechnya's Moscow-backed administration said Thursday that tent camps for Chechen refugees in neighboring Ingushetia will be closed and removed by Oct. 1, the Interfax news agency reported - a decision certain to anger refugees who fear to return to the war-ravaged region.
"All refugees will have been moved to Grozny," the capital of Chechnya, Interfax quoted acting Chechen administration chief Anatoly Popov as saying in Moscow.
Popov, Chechnya's prime minister, is filling in for administration chief Akhmad Kadyrov while Kadyrov runs for the Chechen presidency in an Oct. 5 election.
Popov said that housing will be made available in Grozny for all those who choose to return and that he had secured a promise of help with the housing issue from Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Interfax reported. He also said those who do not want to return to Chechnya will be provided with housing in Ingushetia.
Since last year, Russian officials have been encouraging refugees in Ingushetia to return to Chechnya as part of broader efforts to show that peace is returning to the region - despite daily fighting, frequent attacks on civilians and persistent complaints of kidnappings and killings by the Russian military.
Humanitarian organizations say many refugees don't want to return, fearing for their safety in Chechnya, where the second war in a decade is nearly four years old. Refugees and human rights groups say officials have threatened to close refugee camps and are using intimidation and blackmail to persuade people to return.
Popov said that about 9,500 refugees currently live in the camps in Ingushetia, according to Interfax. Russia's government minister for Chechnya, Stanislav Ilyasov, was quoted as saying just three weeks ago that there were 18,000 Chechen refugees in the camps and that they would return at their own will.
Officials in Ingushetia and at the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin's chief aide for Chechnya could not immediately be reached for comment.
Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya in 1996 after a devastating 20-month war, leaving separatist in charge. They swept in again in September 1999 after Chechnya-based insurgents mounted incursions into neighboring Dagestan and after some 300 people died in apartment explosions that authorities blamed on the rebels.