Airstrikes Prompt New Darfur Exodus

By Bradley S. Klapper
Associated Press
Monday, February 11, 2008

GENEVA, Feb. 10 -- As many as 12,000 refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan fled across the border into Chad over the weekend after a series of Sudanese military airstrikes, the U.N. refugee agency said Sunday.

Thousands more may be coming, the agency said.

The refugees are "destitute and terrified," said Helene Caux, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, headquartered in Geneva. "They told of their villages being looted and burned, and encircled by militia."

Most of the new refugees in Chad are men, but they told U.N. representatives that thousands of women and children were on their way, Caux said.

The agency was transporting emergency assistance to Chad's border area, where the refugees gave detailed descriptions of air attacks Friday on three towns in West Darfur.

U.N. officials say the worsening situation in Darfur has been exacerbated by a recent rebel attack on N'Djamena, the capital of neighboring Chad. Chad has accused Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, of backing those rebels in a bid to prevent deployment of a European peacekeeping force in the Chad-Sudan border region, where 400,000 refugees are living.

The fighting last week in Chad displaced tens of thousands of Chadians, adding to the daunting challenge for humanitarian workers in the region. Some Chadians have even fled into Sudan.

"We don't know where all the armed groups are or where they are heading to, so the whole border is just very volatile and dangerous," Caux said. "The refugees are moving back and forth from one dangerous to another dangerous situation. It's completely surreal."

Darfur rebels have denied that any of their fighters were in the towns attacked by the Sudanese government Friday and said 200 people were killed.

The Darfur conflict began five years ago when rebel groups attacked Sudanese government sites. The government is accused of responding by arming its allied Janjaweed militias, which human rights groups say have committed the worst atrocities in Darfur. The fighting has left as many as 450,000 people dead and displaced more than 2.5 million.

Caux said the refugees displaced this weekend reported that their villages were attacked by men on horses and camels, a description similar to those provided of earlier incidents involving the Janjaweed.

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