By Michael Stott
MOSCOW, Jan 16 (Reuters) - The International Red Cross appealed to Russia on Wednesday to speed up work in discovering the fate of more than 1,000 people who have disappeared in war-torn North Caucasus over the last 20 years.
Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said in an interview during a visit to Moscow that Russian officials needed to do more to help the families of those who have disappeared to find out about their loved ones.
"Our concern is that the families affected, who have relatives missing ... get information on what happened", Kellenberger told Reuters.
"If these persons have died, that the mortal remains be identified and that they are then transferred to the families."
Russian soldiers marched into mainly Muslim Chechnya in December 1994 to crush a drive for independence, starting a conflict that destroyed the region, forced tens of thousands to flee and killed thousands more.
International groups have long urged Russia and the Chechens to track down the missing. The republic’s Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a 31-year-old former rebel, presents himself as a defender of human rights and has pledged to find the missing.
Observers and aid workers believe there are mass graves scattered around the republic where most of the missing will be found.
Kellenberger said Russian government officials should take the issue of those who have disappeared more seriously.
"Some of them may think that what is being done is sufficient", he said. "That is not my opinion. We need a very clear strong political signal at the highest level."
Sporadic fighting still peppers Chechnya and violence has spilled over into neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia but the intensity has dropped away and the Kremlin is now trying to present the region as stable and peaceful.
Kellenberger said the Red Cross had handed over documents to Russian authorities on 1,140 missing people in the North Caucasus on which it wanted information but other organisations had lists of up to 5,000. Individuals were still disappearing.
"The number of disappearances has clearly decreased but I do not think there is now nobody disappearing," he added.
Kellenberger said Moscow should give a single organisation oversight on the issue of the missing and allow that body to coordinate effectively to ensure that cases were followed up.
The Red Cross has reduced its North Caucasus budget this year to around $11 million as its focus shifts from handing out aid parcels to running development programmes.
The Red Cross chief also pressed Russia to allow it to resume teaching international humanitarian law to troops in the North Caucasus. Moscow had allowed this but withdrew permission last year without giving a clear or convincing reason, he said.
Kellenberger also asked Russia to support a Red Cross push to outlaw unreliable and inaccurate cluster munitions which hurt civilian populations.
Russia has not contributed financially to the International Red Cross in recent times. Kellenberger said he had raised the issue but "did not have a concrete success". (Editing by Richard Balmforth)