Russia's refugee disaster is burgeoning as Moscow continues to bomb Chechnya and federal troops began to make incursions into the breakaway republic in what looks to be an escalation toward full-scale war.
Almost 90,000 have fled the republic as the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees began to send convoys of aid to neighboring Ingushetia, to the west, where most of the refugees have headed.
Meanwhile, Russian leaders say they're planning a ground offensive into Chechnya. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov is still trying unsuccessfully to engage Moscow in talks to peacefully resolve the situation, but Chechen military officials have said the southern republic would fight any Russian forces on their territory.
Chechnya humiliated Moscow by winning a bitter war for de facto independence in 1994 to 1996.
The Emergency Situations Ministry said Friday that 88,000 people had fled airstrikes in Chechnya. Most made their way to Ingushetia, while others have crossed into Dagestan and other regions. Border guards at first refused to allow refugees to cross but began letting people through after stringent document checks.
Federal agencies are currently trying to create a semblance of order by registering refugees, but conditions for the displaced are deplorable, news agencies reported.
The Federal Migration Service and the Emergency Situations and Nationalities ministries are involved in aiding refugees.
Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev said that the number of refugees could increase to 200,000, and local officials said they currently lack resources to cope with the refugees.
The UNHCR said it was sending aid convoys from Stavropol, where the organization has its main Caucasus office and relief stocks.
"We're working with the Ingush migration service and other agencies in Ingushetia," UNHCR spokeswoman Vera Soboleva said.
The first convoys delivered the most urgently needed goods, including blankets, mattresses, cans for water and kitchen sets.
"I don't know if food will be in the first convoy or later," Soboleva said.
Russian officials said at first they did not need outside help in dealing with the refugees, but the UNHCR received an official request for help Wednesday from the Russian Federation Nationalities Ministry. That followed an appeal from the Ingushetian government.
Estimates of numbers of refugees vary from around 50,000 to 100,000. Anatoly Yemilyanenko, head of Nationalities Ministry North Caucasus department, said there were 50,000 refugees in Ingushetia, 2,000 in Dagestan and hundreds in Stavropol and other regions.
He added that federal agencies were "carrying out urgent measures" to help the refugees, but would not specify further.
The UNHCR is coordinating its activities through the Federal Migration Service, whose chief returned Friday from a visit to assess the refugee situation in the region.
"We can only judge from information we have from Russian sources," Soboleva said about evaluating Russia's actions to alleviate the crisis. "It's very difficult for us to properly assess the situation."
So far, the UNHCR is the only international organization involved in the relief effort, according to Yemilyanenko.
Victoria Catliff, spokeswoman for the Moscow delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said Moscow has not approached her organization for help but that the Red Cross is nonetheless evaluating the situation in the North Caucasus.
"It's a pan-Caucasian problem - you've got internally displaced persons in Chechnya, too," Caitliff said.
Both the Red Cross and the UNHCR refused to comment on how Russian agencies were dealing with the refugee situation.
Moscow on the offensive
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last week that Russian soldiers had taken the high ground inside the border of the breakaway republic. NTV television reported Friday that thousands of soldiers with about 1,000 armored vehicles had crossed about 5 kilometers into Chechnya to take a swath of about 80 kilometers of the Naursky and Sholkovsky regions.
The Defense Ministry refused to comment on the reports.
NTV also reported that elite Russian OMON troops were readying on the border in Dagestan.
Russia says it wants to wipe out Islamic militants who invaded the neighboring region of Dagestan in August and September. The militants have also been blamed for four recent bomb blasts in Russia that killed about 300 people.
"Chechnya is Russian territory," Putin said, Interfax reported. "Our troops can be stationed anywhere."
Plans for new assault
Government officials said Thursday they approved a Defense Ministry plan to launch a land assault in early October, Russian news agencies reported. The military hinted the plan would involve taking several districts in Chechnya to form a buffer zone between Russia and the rest of Chechnya.
Ingush President Ruslan Aushev said Friday that a ground attack would begin a second Chechen war.
Fifty thousand Russian soldiers would most likely move into the territory from the north, east and west in a move similar to that sparking the 1994-1996 war, Interfax reported.
Chechen Defense Minister Magomed Khambiyev said Thursday that trained troops were ready to fight against Russian soldiers. Maskhadov also appointed notorious field commander Shamil Basayev as a military commander in the vital eastern part of the republic.
Basayev has opposed Maskhadov's presidency for his softness toward Moscow, but the rival warlords who have made the territory ungovernable by their infighting are now joining together behind Maskhadov to repel a possible Russian attack.
Meanwhile, Russian planes have pounded what Moscow says are rebel bases inside Chechnya. More than 1,500 sorties began to hit targets in the capital Grozny September 23.
Last week's air strikes hit communications centers, ammunition depots and oil and industrial facilities, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
Chechen officials claimed 10 people were killed during Wednesday's raids. The Russian Defense Ministry said all the casualties were militants.
But AP reported refugees at a camp in Ingushetia said the Russian bombing of Grozny and surrounding villages is indiscriminate.
Politics and xenophobia
In Moscow, human rights groups and Chechen representatives warned of the dangers of Russia's escalation of hostilities.
Russian Human Rights Commissioner Oleg Mironov, speaking during a news conference Thursday, called for Russian politicians to end the war but on conditions set forth by the government.
"Peace must include the disbanding of Chechen armed groups and the punishment of militants," he said.
Mironov also decried xenophobia in Russia, which has been especially aimed at Chechens. Russian police have concentrated on dark-skinned people from the Caucasus in a drive to check documents in the aftermath of the recent bombings in Russia. Several Chechens have been arrested in connection with the blasts.
"There are many intelligent and law-abiding members of the Chechen diaspora in Russia," Mironov said. "But if they're oppressed, they'll be forced to leave for Chechnya where they'll be bombed and under fire and forced to fight."
Dzhabrail Gakayev, a leader of the Chechen community in Moscow, said the government should have thought of civilians in Chechnya before beginning its bombing campaign.
"There's no corridor for people to get out," he said. "Camps aren't ready. All that could have been thought of before. We asked for people to be evacuated earlier. We foresaw the situation, so certainly the government must have known what would happen."
Meanwhile, Russian officials continue to refuse to talk with Maskhadov despite repeated entreaties.
Protesting crowds on the Dagestan-Chechnya border stopped local Dagestani authorities from holding scheduled talks with Maskhadov.
West begins to speak
Meanwhile, Western countries have been slow in responding to the crisis in Chechnya. The European Union asked Russia Thursday not to send troops into Chechnya to avoid a repeat of the 1994-1996 war.
It urged Russia to begin talks with Chechen officials to negotiate a peaceful resolution, which it said threatened to destabilize the whole North Caucasus region.
Germany, France and Italy said they were deeply concerned over Russia's bombing campaign and urged a political solution.
The United States also cautioned Moscow to restrain its bombing and refrain from a ground attack.
While Western media coverage has reported Chechens fleeing their homes because of their fear of a Russian invasion, officials in Moscow claim they're not to blame for the humanitarian crisis.
The Nationalities Ministry's Yemilyanenko said Chechen rebels and not Russian bombs are chiefly responsible for the refugee crisis.
"People are running not from bombs dropped on them - many are running from villages not touched by a single bomb," he said. "They are running from real terror inflicted by local forces."
Chechens call such claims absurd. "Someone is using the ethnic card in a very clever and thought-out way," Gakayev said of Russian politicians.
"But the problems won't end with Chechnya. If things continue as they are, it will end in the demise of Russia."