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UNHCR evacuates most staff in eastern Chad after attacks


UNHCR evacuates most staff in eastern Chad after attacks

UNHCR withdraws most of its staff from Guéréda in eastern Chad after a series of armed attacks on the refugee agency and other aid organizations.
31 January 2008
A vehicle damaged at the UNHCR guesthouse in Guereda, eastern Chad.

ABECHE, Chad, January 31 (UNHCR) - A series of armed attacks on the UN refugee agency and other aid organizations forced UNHCR on Thursday to evacuate most of its staff from its office in the eastern Chad town of Guéréda.

In the last 72 hours, five vehicles belonging to UNHCR, its non-governmental partners and MSF Suisse were stolen at gun-point. The UNHCR compound in Guéréda was entered by armed men two nights in a row - on Wednesday and Thursday.

"We are left only with one choice, much to our regret, which is to relocate most staff out of the Guéréda area, as we cannot continue to perform our activities in favour of refugees," said Serge Malé, UNHCR representative in Chad.

"Minimum essential staff will remain in place, so as to ensure basic support in refugee camps. We hope to be able to resume our full activities very soon," he said. UNHCR operates two refugee camps in Guéréda - Mile and Kounoungou - hosting nearly 30,000 refugees from neighbouring Sudan's Darfur region.

Tensions between opposition forces and the Chadian National Army have been mounting since Monday, leading to increased security incidents, especially in Guéréda, which lies about 165 kilometres north-east of Abéché.

Because of the tension, four UNHCR staff and 28 local and international staff of UNHCR's implementing partners were being temporarily relocated to Abéché by air on Thursday. In addition, a convoy of eight vehicles was travelling from Guéréda to Abéché to protect the few remaining vehicles in the town, where ethnic clashes between Zaghawas and Tamas have also been increasing.

"The local authorities don't have the necessary means to protect us anymore. In this area we have a state of complete impunity, Guéréda is getting very vulnerable," said Jorge Holly, head of the UNHCR field office in Guéréda.

"If humanitarian workers are not around, it is impossible to provide adequate protection to the refugees," said Holly. "But the situation here is getting out of control and we also have to protect our staff and partners."

The most serious incident occurred early Wednesday when two armed men in military uniforms jumped the wall of the UNHCR compound and threatened the guards with guns to steal two vehicles.

The attack on Thursday came when an unknown individual with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle entered the UNHCR guesthouse in Guéréda. The intruder was chased off by members of UNHCR's local partner. Shooting between police and the assailant was heard.

"It was a terrible experience," said a staff member who was among the first evacuees to reach Abéché. "This guy broke into the guesthouse. He had this Kalashnikov and it was just by pure chance that nobody was injured."

Remaining colleagues in Guéréda went to the two refugee camps on Thursday to distribute food and water and provide health care. "The refugees are very concerned and worried, but we are lucky to have their full support and understanding," Holly said.

As usual in cases of temporary relocation, the camps have been officially handed over to refugee leaders to manage during the reduced presence of humanitarian workers.

Meanwhile the security situation in Chad's capital, N'Djamena, was also very tense Thursday, with international staff of UN agencies and NGOs advised to stay at home.

UNHCR staff in eastern field offices, like Goz Beida and Koukou-Angarana, are monitoring the situation. Even though some roads are impassable due to military movements, such as the road between Abéché and Farchana, 120 km to the east, UNHCR is trying to ensure assistance continues to 240,000 Sudanese refugees in 12 refugee camps.

In a separate development, an estimated 5,800 refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) have arrived in several border villages in southern Chad over the past few weeks. Many of them have crossed the border since January 28, fleeing attacks by zaraguinas (cattle rustlers) in northern CAR, but others crossed in December and since.

Most of them fled to the Maya village border point and its surroundings, which are located south of the region's biggest town, Goré. A UNHCR team dispatched to the area has pre-registered 3,740 refugees. The team estimates that at least another 2,100 refugees are present in the area.

"The refugees are in poor conditions," said UNHCR's Malé, who was recently in the south. "They arrived with nothing, it is very cold at night and they have no shelter and no blankets." The local population have been sharing their meagre resources with the new arrivals but this situation can not last.

By Annette Rehrl in Abéché, Chad