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UNHCR Airlifts Relief Supplies to Cameroon

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) says an emergency airlift is underway to bring aid to thousands of refugees who fled N'Djamena, the capital of Chad to neighboring Cameroon in recent days. The UNHCR says a plane it chartered carrying relief supplies is expected to arrive in Cameroon on Friday. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

This is the first of two flights this week. Each plane will deliver 45 tons of relief supplies for 14,000 people. The cargo includes plastic sheeting, blankets, jerry cans and cooking sets.

The U.N. refugee agency says the supplies will be trucked on Saturday from Garoua airfield, 800 kilometers north of Yaonde, the capital of Cameroon to Kousseri. That is where an estimated 30,000 Chadians, who fled from fighting between government and rebel forces, have found refuge.

The Kousseri area is on the other side of the Chari River that separates Cameroon from Chad. U.N. refugee spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis says the refugees are living in difficult ad hoc conditions.

"Our teams there have observed that over the last few days people have been crossing back and forth over the bridge to go back to their homes and see whether or not their property has been damaged," she noted. "And, rather than staying in N'Djamena, most of them have been returning back to Cameroon to spend the night there. So, it is far too early to tell whether people are returning earlier. We have got this back and forth movement and I think over the next few days, things will become clearer."

Recent fighting in N'Djamena between government forces and opposition groups from eastern Chad has taken a heavy toll in dead and wounded. Most aid workers from the United Nations and private organizations left the capital, because of the dangerous security situation.

Pagonis says most of the UNHCR staff also left N'Djamena, but they hope to return as soon as the situation has stabilized.

"In N'Djamena this morning, the situation was calm, but the streets remain empty and very few shops are opened," she added. "UNHCR local staff who remained in N'Djamena are starting to collect tents which were looted from our warehouse and later abandoned by looters in the streets. Our office was not touched during the looting."

Many of the refugees who fled to Kousseri, Cameroon are staying with relatives. Others are in schools, hotels, or living out in the open in difficult unsheltered conditions.

Earlier in the week, the UNHCR began moving many of the refugees to Madana, a transit site, close to the bridge linking Chad to Cameroon. Pagonis says between 7,000 and 10,000 refugees have been moved to the site and aid workers have started to set up sanitation and other emergency facilities.

She says the UNHCR will have 16 staff members on the ground in Kousseri by the end of Friday to take charge of the humanitarian operation. She says the UNHCR along with the World Food Program plan to distribute food on Saturday for up to 30,000 Chadian refugees. And, she says, 12 tons of non-food relief supplies that had arrived in Kousseri earlier in the week will be distributed on Sunday.