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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 August, 2003, 21:04 GMT 22:04 UK
Jolie makes plea for Chechen refugees
Damian Grammaticas
By Damian Grammaticas
BBC correspondent in Moscow

The Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie has said the Russian Government must not force refugees to return to Chechnya against their will.

Miss Jolie, who is best known for her portrayal of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider movies, has been visiting refugee camps in southern Russia in her capacity as a United Nations goodwill ambassador.

Angelina Jolie (L) n Chechnya
Jolie won her Oscar for portraying a mental patient in Girl, Interrupted
Miss Jolie's Hollywood roles have taken her to many corners of the world. But the Bella refugee camp in Ingushetia, with its cramped and squalid tents, was the Hollywood actress's first experience of Russia.

Russia's authorities have said they want to close Bella and other camps housing thousands of refugees from Chechnya by the first of October.

Officially Moscow has declared that the war in Chechnya is over and wants the refugees to return as a sign life is getting back to normal.

But Miss Jolie said many of the refugees told her they fear Russia will force them out of their camps with nowhere to go but back to Chechnya. She said their return must be voluntary:

"It's only voluntary if they've been given options of housing or some kind. Some kind of housing, be it a dirty old tent. And if they don't have that, you can't call it voluntary repatriation - that is forcing people to go back."

Refugees fearful

As part of a peace plan for Chechnya, Russia is holding elections for a president of the republic. It says the situation is stabilising - but Chechnya's rebels are not involved in the political process.

There is still constant fighting between them and Russian troops, along with disappearances, murders and rapes.

Miss Jolie said she was not convinced by Russia's assurances that things are getting better in Chechnya.

And in the refugee camps, Chechens are still fearful.

They have been told that they told they will not be able to vote in the coming elections if they do not return.

Their tents may be dirty and uncomfortable, but many are unwilling to leave until their security can be guaranteed.

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21 Jul 03  |  Europe
Q&A: The Chechen conflict
29 Oct 02  |  Europe
Profile: Chechnya
30 Apr 03  |  Country profiles
Angelina Jolie: Born to be Lara
03 Jul 01  |  Entertainment

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