ICRC moves closer to gaining access to South Ossetia

Following a positive meeting on 19 August between the ICRC's president, Jakob Kellenberger and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, the organization is hopeful that it will soon be granted access to South Ossetia. The following is the latest update on ICRC activities in Georgia and North Ossetia.

The ICRC's key priority remains gaining safe and unimpeded access to all areas affected by the conflict, in particular South Ossetia, as well as isolated villages near Gori, which were cut off by the fighting. The ICRC's President, Jakob Kellenberger, had a positive meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, on 19 August during which the Russian authorities said they believed that the ICRC's presence and work in South Ossetia would be useful. They said that they would emphasize this again to the South Ossetian authorites. The organization remains ready to go to South Ossetia, and has the staff and facilities needed to make a rapid and substantial contribution to efforts already underway to tackle humanitarian needs there. The ICRC is discussing practicalities with the South Ossetian authorities and is hoping to have access to South Ossetia as soon as possible.

The ICRC continues to provide medical assistance to the war wounded and is distributing emergency assistance to affected people, especially those displaced or isolated by the conflict in both Georgia and North Ossetia. A top priority is reaching out to the most vulnerable the elderly and the sick who were isolated or unable to flee when the fighting broke out. Providing safe drinking water, access to sanitation facilities, food and other basic items, such as blankets and buckets, are also top priorities. Finally, gaining access to all persons arrested or captured in connection with the conflict remains another key priority.

Prisoner exchange

The ICRC was contacted on the evening of 18 August by the Georgian authorities and invited to be present, as a neutral intermediary, on the morning of 19 August, at the handover of Russian and Georgian Prisoners of War (PoWs) about 50 kilometres from Tbilisi. The ICRC was present but not involved. From the Georgian side, five PoWs, including the two wounded Russian pilots previously visited by the ICRC, were handed over. From the Russian side, the ICRC was told that either 20 or 21 Georgian PoWs, including three previously visited by the ICRC in Vladikavkaz on 17 August, were handed over.

Acting as a neutral intermediary in relation to prisoner releases is part of the ICRC's work among its delegations across the world. The ICRC is present to ensure that the handover is done in accordance with international humanitarian law (IHL).

Supplying food and medical assistance

The last initial air bridge shipment from the ICRC's logistics centre in Amman took place on Tuesday, 19 August. The ICRC remains on stand- by to send further shipments if needed. As of 19 August, the ICRC will have delivered 445 tonnes of assistance, including food, blankets, medicine and water treatment equipment, to Tbilisi by air (9 plane loads carrying 335 tonnes) and road (truckloads containing 110 tonnes).

Visit of ICRC President

On 17 August, the ICRC's president, Jakob Kellenberger, arrived in Tbilisi. He visited a collective centre for displaced people near the capital to get a first-hand look at the situation they are facing. Mr. Kellenberger was in the North Ossetian city of Vladikavkaz on Monday 18 August, where he also met with people who had fled their homes due to the fighting. Some people are returning home from North Ossetia to South Ossetia, however it is difficult to assess how many without having access to all areas. On Tuesday, 19 August, Mr Kellenberger met with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow.

Distributing assistance to Gori and surrounding villages

The ICRC continued its work in the Georgian town of Gori on Monday, where increasing numbers of people can be seen out on the street. ICRC delegates say that they have been approached by many residents, mainly elderly, asking for food and medicine. They have described residents as looking bewildered and emotionally drained. One of the ICRC's top priorities is to gain access to villages around Gori, where people may remain isolated and injured, especially elderly persons. Around 1,000 people have received food and non-food items from the ICRC in Gori so far.

Health delivering supplies for war wounded and visiting hospitals

The ICRC delivered three war wounded kits to the hospital in the Georgian town of Kutaisi on Monday, as well as one to the hospital in Kareli. Medical assessment teams from both Tbilisi and Zugdidi were also able to visit the Kutaisi on Monday.

Restoring access to safe drinking water

ICRC teams in and around Tbilisi continue to restore water connections at the collective centres sheltering people who were forced to flee their homes. The centres are mainly abandoned public buildings, so the ICRC is working to ensure functioning water connections. This includes fixing pipes and sewage systems. On 18 August, the ICRC began distributing cooking stoves to displaced families so they can cook the rice they have received. Water and sanitation issues remain a concern in some of the collective centres.

Gaining access to detainees

In accordance with the ICRC's mandate, the organization has officially requested access from both the Russian and Georgian authorities to all persons arrested or captured in connection with the conflict. The ICRC has been able to visit two wounded Russian pilots held by the Georgian authorities on several separate occasions. On 17 August, the ICRC was granted access to three wounded Georgian prisoners of war held by the Russian Armed Forces. They had the opportunity to speak with their relatives by phone during calls facilitated by the ICRC and filled out Red Cross messages.

Access to South Ossetia / restoring family links

The ICRC's tracing delegates continue to hear from people who are very worried about the relatives they left behind, especially in South Ossetia. Many are concerned about their elderly relatives, who were unable to flee when the fighting started. Until the ICRC has safe and unimpeded access to all affected areas, it is difficult to have a full picture of the scale of the humanitarian needs.

[Source: International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Geneva, 19Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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