GENEVA (Reuters) – Aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross, who have reached South Ossetia, will focus on visiting detainees and helping families trace missing loved ones, an ICRC spokesman said on Thursday.
An ICRC team is the only international aid organization to deploy so far in Tskhinvali, capital of the breakaway Georgian province which is under Russia’s military control.
But arriving late on Wednesday, after waiting a week for security clearances, it found that Russia’s emergency aid agency EMERCOM had taken charge of the relief effort in the city, providing medicines, food and water to civilians, it said.
“We are very happy to be here and to play our role, but we should have been here days ago. There are still needs, not only for goods but for expertise,” ICRC spokesman David-Pierre Marquet told Reuters by telephone from Tskhinvali.
“We will concentrate our work on protection of the civilian population — tracing missing persons, restoring family links and visiting people who have been detained,” he said.
Dozens of families have approached the ICRC team seeking its services to trace people who remain unaccounted for, and it has received allegations about people held in captivity, he said.
Helping families trace missing relatives and visiting people detained in armed conflicts to check on their treatment are traditional tasks of the neutral humanitarian agency.
The ICRC team in South Ossetia consists of seven expatriates and 10 locals.
Russia says 1,600 people, mainly civilians, were killed when Georgian forces tried 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.
“We visited the main hospital in Tskhinvali, which is the only one left standing,” Marquet said.
People wounded in the fighting were evacuated to Russia, either to hospitals in North Ossetia, or elsewhere in the Caucasus region or Moscow for the most serious cases, he said.
But the ICRC brought medical and surgical supplies to the Tskhinvali hospital and will help restore its infrastructure, according to the Frenchman.
Russian demining teams were carrying out controlled explosions in and around the South Ossetian capital and the night had also been marked by isolated shooting, he said.
The ICRC team was drawing up public messages to warn civilians of the danger posed by unexploded munitions left over from the fighting, he said.
ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger sought access to South Ossetia for the Geneva-based agency in his talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday.
The ICRC convoy of five vehicles reached South Ossetia via Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. During the seven-hour drive, they saw burnt-out cars and “got an overall feeling of desolation,” spokeswoman Anna Nelson said.