United Nations agencies have begun providing emergency aid to thousands of people affected by the escalating conflict in Georgia, as a senior UN official told the Security Council today that Russian forces have now entered Georgian areas outside the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The World Food Programme (WFP) said it has begun providing critical humanitarian aid to more than 2,000 people displaced by the violence in South Ossetia, where the fighting first erupted last week.
In response to a request from the Georgian Government, WFP distributed a 10-day food ration to more than 1,900 internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in shelters in the capital, Tbilisi, with more distributions taking place today.
“The number of people in need of our help is rising by the hour,” said WFP Georgia Country Director Lola Castro, adding that so far, 2,750 IDPs had been registered in Tbilisi alone. Many more people were living with relatives or in unofficial shelters.
WFP said today’s distributions are mainly targeted at people outside the capital. However, access to them is restricted by continuing Russian air raids, making it extremely dangerous for WFP staff trying to reach them. In addition to food aid, the agency is also offering its logistical support to other humanitarian organisations.
Heavy fighting began on Thursday night between Georgian and South Ossetian forces, leading to a large number of casualties and the displacement of thousands. Russian forces have since become involved in that region, and in Abkhazia in the northwest, where a UN observer mission (UNOMIG) monitors a separate 1994 ceasefire accord.
The crisis has led to an international outcry from senior UN officials, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has voiced grave concern at the mounting humanitarian toll and called for an immediate end to the fighting.
Mr. Ban has discussed the issue over the past few days with European Union High Representative Javier Solana, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
The violence has also prompted the Security Council to meet five times since Friday morning. At a closed-door meeting today, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe and Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Edmond Mulet briefed Council members on the latest developments.
Ambassador Jan Grauls of Belgium, which holds the rotating Council presidency this month, said Mr. Mulet informed the meeting that Russian troops had entered areas of Georgia outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
WFP reports that tens of thousands of people have fled South Ossetia over the past four days, most of them to other parts of Georgia. Russia says about 30,000 people have crossed the border into neighbouring North Ossetia, Russia, where the Government says it will take care of the humanitarian needs.
A joint assessment carried out on Sunday by WFP and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Gori, which has also been affected by the conflict, found the Georgian town – with a population of about 40,000 – to be almost deserted.
Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, today welcomed reports that two humanitarian corridors out of South Ossetia – one reportedly to North Ossetia and one to the south to Georgia proper – will be established for civilians caught up in the ongoing conflict.
Mr. Guterres said humanitarian access and safe passage for uprooted civilians and the aid workers trying to help them was now crucial.
“The conflict has caused civilian casualties and more are at risk,” he said. “Many people need help and many are seeking safety elsewhere. It is essential that humanitarian agencies be able to reach the affected and the displaced, and that those trapped in conflict areas be granted passage to safer areas as soon as possible.”
The number of IDPs is expected to rise to as many as 20,000, according to UNHCR, while about 5,000 South Ossetians have already fled to the neighbouring North Ossetia-Alania region.
UNHCR, which has an office in the North Ossetian city of Vladikavkaz, said it stands ready to provide humanitarian support should Russian authorities request it. The agency has some aid stockpiles in both Georgia and Russia.
Some 300 of the most vulnerable new arrivals from South Ossetia, including women and children, were transferred over the weekend from Gori to safer quarters near Tbilisi, where they received immediate assistance from UNHCR, WFP and other humanitarian agencies, in collaboration with the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is also working closely with UN agencies on the ground, assessing the situation and immediate needs. The agency added its voice to those calling for an immediate end to hostilities and appealed to all parties to ensure the safety and protection of all civilians, particularly women and children.