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Over 20,000 displaced Georgians return to villages in buffer zone – UN

Over 20,000 displaced Georgians return to villages in buffer zone – UN

More than 20,000 people displaced by the fighting that broke out in Georgia in late August have returned to their villages in the buffer zone around the breakaway region of South Ossetia over the past week, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.

An estimated 192,000 people were uprooted from their homes in the Caucasus country by the conflict between forces from Georgia, Russia and South Ossetia.

“Our teams monitoring the returns report that more than 20,000 people have headed back since the withdrawal of the Russian troops from the buffer zone on 8 October,” Ron Redmond, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva.

“Most of these people are returning to their homes and villages in the buffer zone or checking to see if conditions are safe and acceptable. We are warning all of those going back to watch out for mines and unexploded ordnance. Some casualties have already been registered,” he added.

The agency closed its tent camp in the town of Gori, south of South Ossetia, earlier this week after the last of the displaced left for their homes in the buffer zone, or were relocated to collective centres.

UNHCR estimates that 78,000 out of the 133,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Georgia have returned to their homes across the country. Meanwhile, Russian authorities in North Ossetia report that fewer than 2,000 people remain there out of some 30,000 who fled from South Ossetia back in August.

Returnees are being provided with tools and reconstruction materials to help them resettle in their villages. UNHCR is also working urgently to repair and rehabilitate collective centres and damaged houses for some 35,000 IDPs before the winter sets in. It is also distributing stoves and firewood, as well as additional blankets, mattresses, bed sheets and kitchen stoves.

UNHCR teams are also planning to convert unused public buildings into apartments for some 5,000 people who cannot return to their homes in the long term.

“We urgently need additional funds to ensure continued assistance, winterization and reconstruction programmes for the newly displaced population in the Caucasus region,” Mr. Redmond stressed, adding that the agency has only received 31 per cent of the nearly $45 million needed to provide protection, shelter and assistance for the next six months to the displaced.