Senegal/Gambia: tensions in Casamance Province continue
Tensions in Senegal's troubled Casamance Province continue to drive people into neighbouring Gambia. This week, more than 200 refugees arrived in villages along Gambia's southern border with Senegal. This brings to over 2,500 the number of Senegalese refugees who have fled to Gambia since fighting between Senegalese government forces and rebels of the separatist MFDC (Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance) flared up.
Refugees and local residents in Gambia's southern border villages yesterday (Thursday) told UNHCR staff they had heard gunshots across the border. This could herald another outflow. A refugee woman who arrived this week from Tanding - a village in northern Casamance - described how her village had been destroyed by Senegalese soldiers who had allegedly burned almost all the houses in the village as they pursued the rebels. Many of the refugees who arrived in Gambia this week say they fled their homes when they saw a military aircraft patrolling the area, fearing a repeat of an air bombardment which had allegedly taken place several days earlier. In one of the villages visited by the UNHCR team, refugee elders claimed that many civilians had been killed during the bombardment. They also alleged that five men, who had gone back to check on their families and livestock, were arrested.
UNHCR staff report that most of the villages along the border cannot accommodate the new arrivals, some of whom are now living under trees. The majority of refugees have, however, declined to move to UNHCR's transit camp at Kwinella, some 70 km north of the border.
Meanwhile, in Senegal, UNHCR is trying to check out reports of a reported deportation (refoulement) of some 1,000 Casamance refugees from Guinea-Bissau - Senegal's southern neighbour, which also borders on the troubled Casamance province. UN workers in Senegal's south-western town of Ziguinchor this week reported the arrival of some 53 Senegalese refugees from Guinea-Bissau. UNHCR has sent a team to the area to establish whether or not their return was forced.
The civil conflict in Senegal's southern Casamance Province began in 1982 and has simmered on since then, sometimes erupting into all-out war. It is one of Africa's "forgotten" civil conflicts. Several peace agreements between the government of Senegal and the separatist MFDC rebels have broken down in the past, with hard-line elements in the MFDC insisting on independence from Dakar.
UNHCR is caring for 12,400 refugees in the Gambia, including 1,675 from Senegal who arrived before the recent upsurge in fighting.