NEW YORK/MOSCOW, 24 June (Office of the Special Representative) — At the conclusion of a weeklong (17-24 June) visit to the Russian Federation, including the northern Caucasus, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara A. Otunnu, welcomed assurances concerning the voluntary return of displaced populations from Chechnya. He stated, I raised the question of voluntary return of displaced populations from Chechnya with the Deputy Prime Minister and senior ministers of the Russian Federation, the President of the Republic of Ingushetia and the Government of the Republic of Chechnya; they all gave me direct and firm assurances that the displaced persons will not be forced to return against their will. All the displaced persons I met are very eager to return to their homes; however, they remain very concerned about their own security.

The main objective of the visit was to assess first-hand the situation of children affected by the armed conflict in Chechnya. During the mission, Mr. Otunnu held discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister and senior ministers of the Russian Federation, the President of Ingushetia, the Deputy Prime Minister of Chechnya, and the Prime Minister of North Ossetia-Alania, representatives of United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and religious leaders. His last meeting today will be with the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Igor Ivanov.

In the northern Caucasus, Mr Otunnu visited the three Republics of Ingushetia, Chechnya, and North Ossetia-Alania. In Ingushetia, he toured the tent camps and spontaneous settlements for the internally displaced persons, as well as schools, health and recreation facilities. In Chechnya, Mr. Otunnu visited hospitals, children s trauma centres, a mine victims sports project, mine-awareness programmes, children s summer and recreation centres, and he met with displaced families at one of the temporary accommodation centres. He was also able to observe first-hand the massive damage in Grozny, which will require considerable resources for reconstruction. In North Ossetia, the Special Representative witnessed the production and fitting of artificial limbs on children affected by land mines at the Prosthetics Centre.

Following the visit, Mr. Otunnu observed: Clearly, the combined impact of the two periods of armed conflict in Chechnya (1994 to 1996 and 1999 onwards) have left a very extensive and serious impact on children. Key features of this impact include:

— there are 160,000 displaced persons in Chechnya and 150,000 in Ingushetia, some 50 per cent of them children;

— the use and impact of landmines is grave and has been particularly damaging for children, with about 500,000 mines in Chechnya, making it one of the most mine-contaminated zones in the world;

— 1,312 children have been killed outright as a result of hostilities, a further 1,915 have died of injuries, and 1,203 have been permanently maimed;

— the conflict has left some 1,600 orphans;

— there has been extensive damage to infrastructure and social services that benefit children, particularly housing, schools, public buildings, water and electricity;

— exposure to violence and displacement has left many children traumatized;

— young people, particularly boys, remain vulnerable to harassment and abuse during military operations;

— the conflict has led to interruption of schooling for many children; and

— insurgency groups enlist children into their ranks; they also provide financial incentives for children to plant landmines and explosives.

At the conclusion of his mission, Mr. Otunnu called for several specific actions for the benefit of children affected by the armed conflict in Chechnya. These include:

— observance of the principle of voluntary return of the displaced persons;

— an end to all use of landmines;

— continued provision of humanitarian assistance by the international donor community;

— increased assistance for children who have been maimed by landmines and UXOs, in particular, more resources are urgently needed to increase the production of prosthetics;

— greater support for psycho-social assistance and for the provision of sports and recreation;

— formation of a regional civil society network, focusing on protection and advocacy for children affected by armed conflicts in the northern Caucasus; and

inter-faith initiatives to promote peace, tolerance, reconciliation and healing in the northern Caucasus.

Mr. Otunnu welcomed the issuance by the Military Commander of Chechnya of Order Number 80 of April 2002, which sets out clear and transparent procedures to be followed during operations, to ensure greater protection of civilians and accountability.

On the ratification by the Russian Federation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the Russian Federation – which sets the minimum age for participation in combat at 18 years — the Special Representative welcomed the assurance that this process was under way.

Concerning the activities of insurgency groups affecting children, Mr. Otunnu said: I have received consistent reports indicating that the insurgency groups continue to enlist children into their ranks, paying some of them to plant landmines. The insurgents have also been targeting civilian personnel who they regard as cooperating with the government administration. I call on those concerned to stop these practices which are entirely unacceptable.

While in the North Caucasus, Mr. Otunnu expressed his concern for the protection and well-being of all children affected by armed conflicts in the region. He stated: Our concern must be to provide support and relief, on a humanitarian and impartial basis, to all who have suffered as a result of armed conflict, regardless of their ethnicity, political or religious affiliations. In this connection, he discussed the situations of ethnic Russians who have been displaced from Chechnya, refugees from Georgia, and those who have been affected by the Ingush-Ossetia conflict of 1992.

Mr. Otunnu was also particularly impressed by the hospitality of the Ingush people and their government and the North Ossetian people and their government in welcoming and hosting displaced populations from Chechnya and refugees from Georgia, respectively. He stated: We cannot take this for granted, particularly at a time when it is getting more difficult for communities fleeing from armed conflicts to receive refuge and hospitality elsewhere. He was also very impressed and encouraged by the fact that, although the northern Caucasus is a region of diverse religious expression and identity, the issue of religion has not been a factor in the recent conflicts in the region. This is very good news , he stated.

For further information from the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, please contact: Maimouna Mills, Communications Officer, tel: (212) 963-9879; facsimile: (212) 963 0807;

e-mail: millsm@un. org.