UNHCR seeks aid access in S.Ossetia

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) called on Sunday for humanitarian access and safe passage for thousands of civilians caught up in fighting in the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia.

“The conflict has caused civilian casualties and more are at risk,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said.

“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,” he said in a statement.

The agency welcomed news that two humanitarian corridors would be established for civilians caught up in the conflict.

The two corridors are reportedly out of South Ossetia to North Ossetia in the Russian Federation and to the south to Georgia proper, the UNHCR said in a statement later on Sunday.

Russia poured troops and tanks across its southern border into Georgia and bombed Georgian targets after Tbilisi attempted on Thursday evening to retake South Ossetia, a small pro-Russian province which broke away from Georgia in the 1990s.

Fighting has raged since then with various figures on the numbers of civilians killed but the combined total is believed to be about 2,000. Towns in South Ossetia have been devastated.

Several thousand displaced people have already fled from South Ossetia to other parts of Georgia, and thousands more have gone north to North Ossetia in Russia, the UNHCR said, citing figures from authorities there.

The number of those displaced in Georgia proper and South Ossetia is estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000, said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond.

“The Georgians have said that 2,400 people have fled into Georgia proper, but our representative there believes this figure is substantially higher,” Redmond said.

Sergei Sobyanin, the Russian government chief of staff, has said 30,000 South Ossetian refugees fled to Russia since Friday.

The UNHCR was sending a team to the Georgian town of Gori, scene of Russian bombing, on Sunday to assess needs there and intends to resume aid convoys as soon as possible, Redmond said.

Reporting by Katie Reid; Editing by Mary Gabriel