UN Says Mines Threaten Georgian Returnees

GENEVA -- Civilians returning to homes in Georgia risk being injured or killed by land mines and unexploded bombs left by the recent conflict, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday.

Thousands of people are returning to villages in Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia now that fighting has ended and Russian troops began their withdrawal last week.

"We're advising returnees through the local media to watch out for unexploded ordnance and to stay away from villages not yet cleared of mines and declared safe by the authorities," said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UNHCR was particularly concerned about children stepping on mines, he said, but added that exact figures on the number of leftover explosives are not available.

Redmond told journalists in Geneva that experience from the conflict in the former Serbian province of Kosovo proved that civilians often ignore warnings about land mines, resulting in deaths and injuries.

About 158,000 people were displaced by fighting between Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian rebel forces earlier this month.

According to Russian and Georgian officials, 33,000 to 38,000 civilians have now returned to their homes and more are following.

"We're seeing an increasing number of people going home in the aftermath of the Russian withdrawal last Friday," Redmond said.

In many cases, men are traveling back first to ensure the area is safe before bringing back their families, he said.

The UNHCR and other agencies have set up centers in the region to help those affected by the conflict, but convoys are still unable to pass into South Ossetia from the Georgian side because of security concerns, Redmond said.