Georgia/Russian Federation: ICRC arrives in South Ossetia as humanitarian operation expands
20-08-2008 Press Briefing
Upon his return from a visit to Georgia and the Russian Federation, the ICRC's president, Jakob Kellenberger, expressed relief that the organization had finally gained access to South Ossetia. He also announced that a new base of operations had been set up in Gori to provide urgent help to the most vulnerable, and to prepare to meet the needs of affected civilians in South Ossetia.
During his three-day visit, President Kellenberger visited a collective centre for the displaced in Tbilisi, as well as one on the Russian side, in Vladikavkaz. From there he went on to Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In addition to assessing the humanitarian situation, the key priority of the visit was to gain access to South Ossetia. " After some suspense, we achieved our goal, " said the president.
" We will wait for the initial team's evaluation before deciding to what extent we will expand the operation, " he added.
Priorities for South Ossetia
The president said the priorities for the ICRC's work in South Ossetia would be to assess the needs of residents and the state of medical care, to restore contact between family members who have been separated by the conflict and to obtain information about people who remain unaccounted for.
Humanitarian consequences of conflict in Georgia
President Kellenberger said that the ICRC's assessment is that there are about 80,000 displaced people in Georgia. This figure includes Georgians from South Ossetia, Gori and villages in western Georgia. The ICRC was able to react very quickly to assist the displaced.
" Thanks to an efficient rapid deployment programme, we have succeeded in mounti ng our operation in Georgia very quickly. The initial push will assist 25,000 people over one month, and has already assisted 7,000 people in Georgia,with food and non-food items, " he said. The ICRC has also helped restore access to safe drinking water and provided sanitation support to a substantial number of displaced people.
Hospital sources indicate that there are approximately 1,000 war wounded in Georgia. To assist in treating the injured, the ICRC is supporting four hospitals including two in Gori and one each in Kutaisi and Kareli.
The president also said that the ICRC had been given early access to visit two injured Russian pilots, who were in Georgian custody and have since been handed back to Russia, along with three other Russian prisoners of war (PoWs), whom the ICRC did not visit.
The number of people who fled from South Ossetia to North Ossetia and who remain in shelter centres there is currently estimated at 8,000. A return movement back to South Ossetia is currently underway and thus it is difficult to give exact figures. According to Russian Ministry of Health authorities, 220 war wounded were treated in hospitals. The ICRC was able to visit three wounded Georgian soldiers on 17 August, with an ICRC surgeon present.
The president reported that the ICRC was present when the two sides exchanged PoWs on 19 August.
In and around Gori
The president announced that as of 20 August, the ICRC had a team permanently present in Gori. The objective of the office in Gori is to assist those in need in the town itself, but also to go to the affected villages around Gori and between Gori and South Ossetia, that were cut off by the fighting, to carry out distributions and protection activities. He said that Gori would become an essential base of ICRC operations for the region.
ICRC staff in Gori are reporting an increasing number of people on the street, mainly the elderly, asking for food and medicine. " Our priority is to reach out to the elderly and the vulnerable in and around Gori, " said the president.
In Gori itself, ICRC staff have seen five apartment blocks that have been shelled, but otherwise no massive destruction. The town itself is relatively intact and there is electricity and water in the places the ICRC has visited.
In response to a question regarding the collective centres for the displaced, President Kellenberger said that he was left with a sad impression of the situation of the displaced in Tbilisi, who remained entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance. As for his visit to the centre in Alaguir, North Ossetia, his impression was that the needs of the displaced there were covered by the authorities and that they would not require any further assistance from the ICRC.