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SUDAN-CHAD: 18,000 Sudanese refugees flee into Chad within 10 days

NAIROBI, 28 January 2004 (IRIN) - Some 18,000 refugees, fleeing renewed fighting in western Sudan's Darfur region, are reported to have arrived in Chad over the last 10 days, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

A UNHCR a statement on Tuesday quoted the refugees as reporting that an Antonov aircraft accompanied by helicopters had flown over Habilah, a village near the border with Chad, and bombed the only well in the area. Armed men had then entered the village on horses and camels, stolen cattle and chased the inhabitants away.

Since that incident 10 days ago, Habilah had emptied of people, UNHCR said. "When other villagers heard the bombings in Habilah, they gathered their belongings and headed for Chad," it quoted the refugees as saying.

UNHCR said, however, that it had been unable to substantiate what the refugees had reported. International media reports, on the other hand, noted that insurgents in Darfur had suffered heavy losses in the air raids, which had targeted rebel camps along the border with Chad.

Qutbi al-Mahdi Ahmad, President Umar al-Bashir's political adviser, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying the rebels had suffered "a lot of losses". But the rebels were quoted as saying the government offensive had killed mostly civilians, destroying 180 villages in a week.

The newly arrived refugees in Chad are being registered by UNHCR to enable them to receive urgently needed assistance. Since Sunday, 762 people have been registered in Kourbileke, seven km from the border with Sudan, 1,074 in Ogona, which lies 23 km inland, and 231 in nearby Kabrara.

UNHCR said registration would begin on Wednesday for another 1,000 refugees in the frontier town of Tine. UNHCR and the Chadian refugee agency, CNAR, were also proceeding to Amdour, where local authorities had reported refugee arrivals from the Sudanese villages of Abu Didat, Abu Dam and Abu Gamara.

"The refugees are currently staying in a very arid and difficult environment. Some are out in the open, with only a few bushes as protection from wind and sand. Many lack even the most basic necessities," UNHCR said. "The refugees have been surviving on food they brought with them when they fled, but their supplies are running out."

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP), which launched an appeal in December for funds to feed the refugees, said it had received a US $2.8 million contribution from the US government in addition to an earlier donation of $800,000 from the Swiss government.

On Monday, WFP warned that the plight of the refugees was set to worsen rapidly. A WFP spokesman, Ramin Rafirasme, said in a statement from the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, that 40 percent of the refugees were children under five years of age and 75 percent of the adults were women.

The fighting in Darfur started in 2003 between the governmment in Khartoum and two rebel groups fighting for greater political recognition, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement. Relief agencies estimate that at least 600,000 people have fled the violence, 110,000 of them crossing into Chad.

Theme (s): Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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