August 19, 2008 / 12:53 PM / 11 years ago

Aid agencies press Russia for access to S.Ossetia

GENEVA (Reuters) - Humanitarian aid agencies pressed top Russian authorities on Tuesday for safe access to South Ossetia, where tens of thousands of people are deemed in need of vital supplies.

Refugees from the zone of the armed conflict between Georgia and Russian-backed South Ossetian separatists receive humanitarian aid in Tbilisi August 19, 2008. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Russian troops control access to the rebel Georgian province, which has been out of reach for aid workers since the start of an 11-day-old conflict between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres was to meet Lavrov on Wednesday.

“We don’t have access to South Ossetia, so to have a full picture of the humanitarian impact of the conflict there is impossible at this time,” ICRC spokeswoman Anna Nelson told a news briefing in Geneva.

“One of our top priorities for when we are able to gain access — we’re hoping following a meeting with Mr Lavrov that we will have access — is to evaluate the state of medical care, particularly for weapon-wounded people,” she said.

Russia says 1,600 people, mainly civilians, were killed following an attempt by Georgian forces on August 7-8 to recapture the pro-Moscow province, which broke away from Georgia in the 1990s. The figure has not been independently verified.

ICRC officials who reached the western Georgian town of Gori at the weekend were approached by many residents asking for food and medicine, according to the spokeswoman.

The neutral humanitarian agency has flown 430 tons of food and medical supplies into Georgia in the past week, she said.

The United Nations appealed on Monday for $58.6 million to help victims of the crisis with food, medicine, shelter, water, sanitation and other essentials for the next six months.

The estimated number of people uprooted by the fighting has risen to 158,700, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday. It includes some 30,000 people from South Ossetia who remain in North Ossetia in the Russian Federation.

Guterres, starting a four-day mission to the region, met Georgian Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili a day ahead of his scheduled talks with Lavrov.

“The High Commissioner will again press for the protection of the civilian population, especially those newly displaced, and for safe and unhindered access by humanitarian organizations to the areas of displacement,” spokesman Andrej Mahecic said.

An aid flight landed on Tuesday at Batumi airport in western Georgia, carrying supplies flown into Tbilisi which could not be put on land convoys for distribution to the displaced due to insecurity, the U.N. refugee agency said.

“The major concerns are ensuring safe food, water and sanitation is provided to the displaced to prevent outbreaks of any communicable diseases. As yet we have seen no reports of any communicable diseases outbreaks,” said Paul Garwood, spokesman of the World Health Organization.

Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Robin Pomeroy

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