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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kidnapping Drives Aid Groups From Chechnya

Safety fears after the kidnapping of a U.S. worker have forced major aid groups, including the United Nations, to suspend projects in war-torn Chechnya, aid officials said Thursday.

The United Nations and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) announced they were suspending operations and withdrawing foreign staff from the region after masked gunmen seized the head of MSF's North Caucasus mission, Kenny Gluck, on Tuesday.

While other aid groups review their safety in an area where heavily-armed rebels kill Russian troops almost daily, hundreds of thousands of displaced Chechens face a freezing winter without adequate shelter, basic foodstuffs and medical care, MSF said.

Toby Lanzer, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Moscow, said it did not have any staff in Chechnya at the time of the kidnapping but a World Food Programme shipment to about 90,000 Chechens had been halted.

"The U.N. suspended operations inside Chechnya yesterday (Wednesday). It is continuing operations in other areas of the North Caucasus where it is working," said Moscow.

"We are reviewing the situation regularly," he said, adding that the kidnapping "could well have serious consequences for aid programmes in the republic of Chechnya."

He said the European Community Humanitarian Office -- which last year gave $19 million in cash and goods to aid programmes in the North Caucasus -- had also instructed agencies which it funds to halt their Chechen operations.

MSF said it was looking at the situation but had taken the precaution of halting its work for now.

"We have suspended our work in Chechnya and our international staff are now in Ingushetia," said MSF spokesman Diderik Van Halsema by telephone from Holland. "We are not doing any of our projects at the moment."

"Depending how the situation develops we will decide what to do next," he said. MSF had heard nothing about 38-year-old Gluck since news of his abduction broke Wednesday, he added.



BLOODBATH DROVE OUT RED CROSS

Moscow's second onslaught in six years against Chechen separatists began in late 1999 and has displaced some 300,000 Chechens and flooded Ingushetia with about 150,000 refugees.

International aid agencies supply them with food, medicines, blankets and plastic sheeting for shelter, but with no end in sight to the conflict and winter gripping the remote region, charities say Chechens need all the help they can get.

"Of course the suspension is a big problem for the Chechen people, especially with the severe winter. Their fate was the reason we were there in the first place," Van Halsema said.

Gluck was seized when gunmen opened fire on a column of vehicles on Tuesday about 19 km south of the regional capital Grozny near the town of Starye Atagi. It is the scene of the bloodiest chapter in the history of aid work in Chechnya.

In 1996 masked gunmen murdered six foreign workers, including five women, in an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) hospital in the town, bursting in at night and shooting them in their beds. The ICRC has refused to base international workers in the region since.

"Our foreign workers make occasional trips into Chechnya organised with the Russian armed forces, but most of our work is in Ingushetia. For expats, it is still too dangerous in Chechnya for sure," said Erik Reumann, ICRC press officer in Moscow.

He said it would be very tough on the Chechens if ICRC local staff also had to stop building and food distribution work because of safety fears, but said danger was constantly hampering the work of aid agencies in the region.

"It is much easier to work outside than inside Chechnya because of security problems," Reumann said. "Now people see that we had very good reasons for being so careful."