International Relief Agencies Unable to Reach Grozny

GENEVA -- International relief agencies are preparing to rush aid to tens of thousands of people who fled the fighting in Chechnya, but their attempts to reach the republic's battered capital are blocked.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Friday that Moscow had so far refused requests for the neutral humanitarian organization to enter Grozny, which has been under heavy bombardment from Russian planes for the past three weeks.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said an emergency team was on its way to regions bordering the breakaway republic to assess the exact needs of the displaced population.

Spokeswoman Sylvana Foa said the first aid deliveries should arrive early next week.

There are an estimated 100,000 refugees in the neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan, and a further 200,000 displaced within Chechnya itself.

"The vast majority are women and children," Foa said. "In general the displaced are in good shape as they have been welcomed into peoples' homes. But in many apartments there are 10 to 15 people in a room and the strain is enormous."

She said there were also reports of people sleeping in railway carriages.

Foa said UNHCR planned to fly in blankets to Ingushetia and Dagestan, where temperatures are well below freezing. She said the UN's World Food Program would send in high protein biscuits and food parcels, and the World Health Organization would help with medical supplies.

In addition to blankets, wood-burning stoves and chlorine to prevent outbreaks of cholera were needed, she said.

Foa said UNHCR would release about $500,000 from an emergency fund before appealing to foreign governments for help.

Russia asked for UN help for displaced people around Chechnya on Thursday, but it has not let the international body or most private agencies into the breakaway republic itself.

The French group, Doctors Without Borders, warned that a blockage in aid could be fatal.

"We are here for helping civilians -- displaced people, people who have lost their homes, people who have lost everything," said Dr. Elizabeth Szumilio.

"They will die of cold. I don't see why we should be impeded from doing anything," Szumilio said in an interview in the Dagestan town of Khazav-Yurt.

ICRC spokesman Paul-Henri Morard said the Red Cross was continuing negotiations to gain permission from both Russian authorities and Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev to send aid to Grozny.

Morard said convoys with medicines and other supplies were on standby outside Grozny. No relief supplies have reached the capital since Dec. 17.