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Chechen kidnapping prompts aid pullout

Chechnya
Thousands of Chechens face a freezing winter without shelter  

MOSCOW, Russia (Reuters) -- Aid groups are pulling out of the breakaway republic of Chechnya because of fears for their safety.

The U.N. and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Thursday they were suspending operations and withdrawing foreign staff after masked gunmen seized the head of MSF's North Caucasus mission, Kenny Gluck, on Tuesday.

He was taken near the town of Stariye Atagi, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of the Chechen capital, Grozny, after gunmen opened fire on a convoy of aid vehicles.

The withdrawal comes as hundreds of thousands of displaced Chechens face a freezing winter without adequate shelter, basic foodstuffs and medical care

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. It is continuing operations in other areas of the North Caucasus where it is working," Lanzer said.

"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," MSF spokesman Diderik Van Halsema said. "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 on Wednesday, he added.

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.

Reuters contributed to this report.



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RELATED SITES:
Russian Government
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Chechen Republic
Russian Information Centre
Medecins Sans Frontieres
Human Rights Watch: Chechnya
United Nations

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