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Thousands of refugees flee attacks in Darfur, cross border to Chad

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Thousands of refugees flee attacks in Darfur, cross border to Chad

10 February 2008

10 February 2008

GENEVA - Thousands of refugees from Darfur have fled across the border into eastern Chad since Friday to escape deadly militia attacks supported by Sudanese forces on villages in West Darfur, as the security situation in the region markedly deteriorates.

Early Sunday, a UN refugee agency team, along with humanitarian partners, sent an emergency mission through Chad's volatile eastern border region to Figeira, in the Birak area. An estimated 4,000-6,000 refugees from Darfur have sought refuge around Birak, fleeing lethal ground and air attacks Friday and Saturday. An equal number of refugees are reported to be near Koruk, also in the Birak area, but the mission was unable to reach them Sunday.

UNHCR team members said the refugees were destitute and terrified. They told of their villages being looted and burned, and encircled by militia to prevent people from fleeing.

The refugees are mainly from the areas of Sirba, Sileah and Abu Suruj, some 50-70 kms north of El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur. The area is known to be a stronghold of the Sudanese opposition group, JEM (Justice and Equality Movement).

The new arrivals, mainly men, said thousands of women and children refugees were on their way to Chad to seek security. UNHCR in West Darfur and other humanitarian agencies are planning a mission to the affected area Monday to see the situation on the ground and assess needs for humanitarian assistance on the Sudan side of the border. Thousands of households have reportedly been directly affected by the attacks.

A refugee from Sileah told UNHCR that ground attacks by the Janjaweed militia, allegedly supported by Sudanese Antonov aircraft, nearly destroyed Abu Suruj and reportedly caused heavy damage to four camps for internally displaced people. UNHCR has no immediate details of casualties. Staff of non-governmental organisations in the area were forced to cross into Chad to escape the attacks.

Urgent measures are now underway in Chad to move the newly arrived refugees by truck, probably on Tuesday, to established refugee camps near Guéréda, about 50 kms from Birak, and to Iriba. Some 30,000 Darfur refugees currently live in two camps in the Guéréda area, while a further 58,000 refugees are in three camps around Iriba.

Once safely in the camps, the newly arrived refugees will be given sleeping mats, blankets, jerry cans and kitchen sets. UNHCR will need to bring in additional supplies to cope with the large number of new arrivals.

"We are already operating in an environment where security is spiralling downwards, where the supply line from N'Djamena is cut after recent fighting, and where our field offices are running short of fuel," said Catherine Huck, head of UNHCR's operations in Abéché. "Getting newly arrived refugees away from the border into camps, is a real challenge."

Sunday's emergency mission to the border area included staff from UNHCR, the government agency CNAR - the Commission Nationale d'Accueil et de Réinsertion des Réfugiés - the World Food Programme, MSF and International Mercy Corps.

Before this fresh influx, UNHCR and its partners were already taking care of 240,000 refugees in 12 camps in eastern Chad.