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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

First Ingush Tent Camp Torn Down

SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Ingushetia -- Authorities closed down the first of five tent camps along the border with Chechnya on Tuesday and herded hundreds of refugees onto open trucks as they stepped up efforts to send Chechens home.

The camp, located near the Ingush village of Aki-Yurt about three kilometers from the border with Chechnya, housed more than 1,500 refugees until the resettlement began last month.

The closure came despite pleas from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for a postponement. The UNHCR said Tuesday that it was trying to track down the Chechens forced to leave the Aki-Yurt camp in freezing weather.

The Memorial human rights group said the move was reminiscent of Stalin-era mass deportations.

An Ingush Interior Ministry spokesman said the camp was completely dismantled Tuesday and that most of its residents had moved back to Chechnya. Those who were unwilling to return were given temporary accommodation elsewhere in Ingushetia, said the spokesman, who refused to be named.

Witnesses said all that was left of the camp, which was sealed off Tuesday to human rights monitors and reporters, were a handful of tents left behind as trucks waited to be loaded up with the last remaining families.

Russian officials have insisted that all refugees return to Chechnya voluntarily, but former residents of the Aki-Yurt camp denied this.

Akhmed Barakhoyev, an activist with the local Memorial branch who has repeatedly visited the camp, said Tuesday that the authorities had pressured refugees to leave by threatening to cut electricity and gas supplies.

Officials, who did not give their names, paid daily visits to the camp, repeatedly asking each family when they were going to leave, he said.

"People realized that they wouldn't be able to stay," Barakhoyev said. "Can you call that a voluntary return?"

Russian officials have announced plans to shut down all refugee camps in Ingushetia by year end. The push, ostensibly intended to support the Kremlin's claim that the three-year Chechen war is winding down, has caused concern.

"We are extremely concerned over the well-being of displaced Chechens" who used to live in the Aki-Yurt camp, Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva. "We urged the Russian authorities not to close the camp. Unfortunately our pleas have been ignored, and for all we know the camp is now virtually empty.

"Initial estimates from our local monitors indicate that just under half of the camp residents have gone to some other accommodation. About the other half, we don't really know," Janowski said.

He said the UNHCR would work to determine their new location.

The United Nations estimates that about 20,000 refugees are living in tent camps in Ingushetia, and another 110,000 are living with relatives or squatting there.

Janowski said the authorities in Ingushetia had barred UNHCR representatives from entering the Aki-Yurt camp "under the pretext that their visit would give displaced people there false hopes."

"The weather there is extremely harsh at the moment," Janowski said.

The authorities also have barred the UNHCR from replacing worn-out or damaged camps at other refugee camps in Ingushetia and deployed troops around them, Janowski said.

Memorial head Oleg Orlov said the return of refugees to Chechnya was reminiscent of Soviet-era collectivization, when Stalin sent millions to their deaths in labor camps. "Then, as now, emissaries were sent to villages to warn what would happen if people did not cooperate. And they did, out of fear," he said.

Some refugees, tired of living in tent cities on Ingush wasteland, said they were glad to hear the government's promises of housing and food in Chechnya. "I can't live in these conditions any longer. There it is dangerous and there are bombs, but there are four walls," said Marina, a 28-year-old widow with two children who lives at the nearby Karabulak camp near Sleptsovskaya. "At least it will be warm -- here they will cut off the gas. It is already so weak that we are all freezing."

But Svetlana Gannushkina of Memorial said most of those returning were unlikely to find warm homes waiting for them. "The hostels are already packed. They have 800 places and 1,200 people are living there. Where are they going to put people returning from the camps?" she said. "This return is built on lies."

(Reuters, AP)