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Friday, 11 August, 2000, 02:37 GMT 03:37 UK
Halo in action

Fleeing Chechens mass on the border with Ingushetia
Guy Willoughby, director of the Halo Trust, was interviewed about his work at the end of 1999, during Russia's assault on the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

The Halo Trust is the last international aid agency still operating in Chechnya.

Until the International Committee of the Red Cross evacuated its staff from the territory, the British-based Halo Trust had been carrying on its core task of clearing mines left by the Russian army during its last onslaught in 1994-6.

Battle for the Caucasus
It switched jobs when the Russian army bombarded a minefield it had been clearing.

"We were clearing mines on areas that internally displaced people were trying to move to. One of the minefields we were working on got hit by 28 rockets," says Mr Willoughby.

The attack, launched from 20-25 miles away, killed three of Halo's local staff.

This tragedy, on the back of the unfolding humanitarian disaster, saw the charity switch its efforts to help alleviate the desperate medical situation.

Its personnel in Chechnya became involved in moving medical supplies between hospitals and maintaining generators.

Grozny had no mains electricity supply and its 17 water-pumping stations were inoperable. The Red Cross had been responsible for chlorinating the city's gravity-fed water reservoir, but this then went unchecked.

For the Russians there was no distinction between civilian and military targets, according to Mr Willoughby.

"If it moves they strafe it with aircraft, and if it does not move they shell it."

One of Halo's ambulances was hit twice. Most of its work was carried out undercover of low cloud or fog, or at night, although the Russians started launching rocket attacks in the dark.

Although the border gates to neighbouring Ingushetia were opened, movement through was at a snail's pace.

Caught in the middle

The column of refugees, along the M29 motorway, was caught in the crossfire of the Russian offensive, said Mr Willoughby.

"People [waiting to cross the border] are just going insane. To the north are Russian guns and in the south are villages being hit."

So why did Halo stay?

A Russian soldier prepares for a raid near Bamut, 35 miles from Grozny
"There's a huge amount of work that needs doing. The humanitarian need is total. It's huge." The charity is well used to working in adverse conditions, having worked in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Mozambique.

There is also the fact that most Halo staff had little choice.

"Because we are a de-mining agency the vast majority of our staff are in their 20s and 30s and male and are not going to be allowed out of Chechnya anyway."

The charity also has the sanction of an Islamic shura - a meeting of Chechen religious leaders - which agreed to guarantee Halo's security.

No western journalists

Mr Willoughby talked to workers daily on satellite phones. He said conditions on the ground were far worse than seen in the news.

People were leaving Grozny because it was being shelled, and going to the villages, which were then also bombed, he said.

The use of multiple rocket launchers - which fire 40 shells at once - showed Russia had adopted a scatter-gun approach, says Mr Willoughby, a former member British serviceman.

"That's always been known as an area weapon, not a precision weapon. It's all-out war.

"There's more firepower going down in Chechnya than we think ever went down in the same period in Afghanistan."

The mood among Halo workers was increasingly one of "real, real anger".

"I think it's wearing on them now - going out on the roads and finding large numbers of people killed on the roads and in the villages."

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