UNHCR launching emergency humanitarian airlift in response to South Ossetia displacement

The UN refugee agency is mounting an emergency airlift of relief supplies to bolster its stockpiles of humanitarian aid in the Caucasus region amid continuing concerns over the plight of civilians caught up in the South Ossetia conflict. High Commissioner António Guterres approved the release of $2 million from UNHCR's emergency reserve to cover possible new needs in the region.

UNHCR staff offload emergency relief items at a temporary reception centre in Mtskheta, outside Gori.   © UNHCR/A.Shrestha

GENEVA, August 11 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency is mounting an emergency airlift of relief supplies to bolster its stockpiles of humanitarian aid in the Caucasus region amid continuing concerns over the plight of civilians caught up in the South Ossetia conflict.

High Commissioner António Guterres on Monday approved the release of $2 million from UNHCR's emergency reserve to cover possible new needs in the region, which has experienced additional displacement in both Georgia and the Russian Federation. More staff are also being deployed.

Guterres also reiterated his earlier call over the weekend for humanitarian access and safe passage for uprooted civilians.

"Our main concern as UNHCR is with the safety of the civilians, both displaced and non-displaced, and with humanitarian access with the possibility for us to help those in distress - especially the uprooted," the High Commissioner said. "We have mobilized our financial resources and our humanitarian resources. Airlifts are starting with relief items to be able to help people. But we need to be able to get to them.

"During the weekend I was quite active with both sides, trying to create conditions to make possible safe access to the people in need and the possibility for the people trapped in the conflict to have safe access to areas where they are not in danger."

The first airlift flight, carrying 20,000 blankets and other aid items, is scheduled to fly from UNHCR's central emergency stockpile in Dubai to Georgia overnight Monday. A second flight is planned for Wednesday from Copenhagen - another of the agency's central logistical hubs. Altogether, the two flights will carry humanitarian supplies for up to 30,000 people.

Guterres has offered humanitarian support to both Russia and Georgia. The agency has a presence in both countries, including in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia and in the North Ossetia region of the Russian Federation. It has six offices and more than 50 staff in Georgia, focusing on an existing beneficiary population of some 275,000 previously displaced people, refugees, stateless people and returnees.

Exact numbers of newly displaced from the latest conflict are compiled by government authorities. The latest figures from Russian officials in North Ossetia indicate some 30,000 people remain there from South Ossetia. Georgian officials say a few thousand have fled south into Georgia proper from South Ossetia, but a registration must be carried out to get an exact figure.

Equally worrisome are reports of population movements in Georgia itself, including from the town of Gori - just south of the boundary with South Ossetia. A UNHCR assessment team which travelled to Gori on Sunday was told by local officials that up to 80 percent of the population had left, fearing further attacks. That could amount to some 56,000 people from Gori on the move. Officials said most had gone toward Tbilisi and that most would return home once the threat subsided.

Over the weekend, UNHCR and its partners provided aid supplies to some 300 vulnerable Georgians from South Ossetia who had been transferred from Gori to Tbilisi. The agency also provided tents and other supplies to partners in Gori for use by the displaced, if necessary.