Hundreds of children missing after Darfur attack

Several days after Sudanese government-backed militia attacked villages in West Darfur, hundreds of children remain unaccounted for, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said.

"There are an unknown number of children aged 12-18 who are missing, especially boys. Nobody knows what has happened to these children," Naqibullah Safi, head of UNICEF for West Darfur said.

Initial reports suggested that up to 800 children were unaccounted for, but the actual number is probably lower, UNICEF said in a statement following an assessment mission to the towns of Sirba and Abu Surouj.

"One of UNICEF's main concerns is to take care of the large numbers of children who have been orphaned or abandoned by their parents, or have gone missing in the confusion of the last few days," the agency noted.

The UNICEF team found that buildings had been burned and thousands of residents had fled the towns.

"Initially people needed food and medicine, there were cases of malnutrition, but the most common problem was people were burned," Safi said. "There are some civilian casualties, but exact figures are not known. Most shelters in Sirba have been burned, and 60-70 percent of Abu Surouj."

The attacks sparked a mass evacuation from the region, leaving only a few thousand residents in Abu Surouj. "We do not know the exact figures, but there are indications as many as 30,000 people might have been displaced," Safi said.

ICRC official killed

A national staff member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was killed during the fighting in Seleia.

According to Sudanese officials, the 8 February attacks were intended to rout opposition Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) forces from Abu Surouj, Sirba and Seleia towns. But JEM officials say the attacks instead targeted civilians.

The UN World Food Programme, which participated in the joint assessment mission, said about 5,000 people in Sirba were in urgent need of food, shelter, medical support and other non-food items.

Fighting in Darfur escalated sharply in 2003 when communities living there took up arms against the government in Khartoum, accusing it of marginalising Darfur. At least 200,000 lives are estimated to have been lost while over two million people have fled their homes.

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