Grozny: More than 100 Chechen refugees return home from Georgia

Russian authorities took a planeload of Chechen refugees from the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia back home Tuesday _ part of Kremlin efforts to show that war-shattered Chechnya is stabilizing.

Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry flew 125 refugees to Makhachkala in the southern Russian province of Dagestan, from where they will be taken by buses to Chechnya, said Alexander Rostovtsev, an official with the migration service.

The refugees were among thousands of Chechens who fled to Georgia's rugged Pankisi Gorge across the border with Chechnya where their ethnic kin live.

Some of the women, accompanied by children, wept as they stepped off the plane and turned away from the waiting television cameras. All the refugees looked extremely tired and haggard, hauling huge bags. Bayan Karsanova, 50, said she had left Grozny in 1999 after her apartment was destroyed.

But in Georgia she complained that conditions were difficult as the refugees subsisted on government handouts and could not work to earn their living. The Chechens' presence in the gorge badly strained Russia's relations with Georgia for years since the second war in Chechnya began in 1999. Russian officials claimed that Pankisi was infested with rebels and accused Georgian authorities of failing to eradicate them.

Georgia launched an operation in 2003 to search the gorge for suspected militants, but Moscow called the operation largely useless. Smaller groups of refugees previously have returned from the gorge, and thousands others came back to Chechnya from refugee camps in Russia's republic of Ingushetia that borders Chechnya to the west.

The Russian authorities have encouraged the refugees' return in a bid to show that Chechnya was returning to normal and offered compensation for homes lost in the war. The compensation was only offered in Chechnya, and that encouraged many refugees to return despite concerns over continuing violence, rampant abductions and miserable conditions in the region, the AP reports.

Russian security officials had carefully screened Chechen refugees willing to return for links to rebels, Idigov said. "Those who aren't coming back have their hands stained in blood," said Sultan Idigov, the head of the Moscow-backed Chechen administration's refugee department. He said that the refugees would be given temporary accommodation in Grozny. P.L.

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