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Thousands of Sudanese Refugees Cross into Chad to Flee Gov't, Rebel Fighting - 2004-01-06

The U.N. refugee agency says tens of thousands of civilians in the Darfur region of western Sudan have fled to Chad in the past two weeks, following increased attacks by Sudanese government troops and militias. The year-long civil war in western Sudan has been dramatically escalating.

U.N. officials estimate about 30,000 Sudanese refugees have crossed the border into Chad during the past two weeks. They say the huge influx began shortly after the breakdown of peace talks in mid-December between the Khartoum government and the rebel Sudan Liberation Army. A spokeswoman for UNHCR in Nairobi, Kitty McKinsey, says the refugees in Chad are badly frightened and desperately poor, having left their villages with little more than the clothes on their backs.

"All of the refugees tell us the same story," she said. "They say they are fleeing continuous threats and raids from the Sudanese army and Arab militias, who are said to be armed by the government. The conditions these people are living in right now are quite dire.

"This is a desert and during daytime, temperatures can reach 35 degrees Celcius," continued Ms. McKinsey. "But then, they drop to less than 10 degrees at night. So, it is quite important for us to get them into tents where we can take care of them better."

In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said the refugees are stattered in dozens of makeshift camps along a 600 kilometer stretch of the Chad-Sudan border. He says the focus of the U.N. effort is to move those refugees out of the border area and into camps with at least basic facilities.

"UNHC-R emergency staff in eastern Chad are now preparing for the logistically difficult relocation effort, which is tentatively set to begin on January 15," said Mr. Redmond. "The UNHCR team reported this morning from our Chad office in the east of the country in Abeche that the first of the new inland camps should be ready to begin accepting an initial population of up to nine thousand refugees in about 10 days."

According to the United Nations, Chad is home to more than 95,000 Sudanese, caught up in a bitter regional conflict that began early last year.

The rebels took up arms to protest decades of perceived economic and political neglect by the government. The government has vowed to crush the rebellion.

For months, mediators in Chad have been trying to negotiate a truce. But in December, peace talks fell apart after Chadian mediators accused the rebels of increasing their demands to include the creation of an autonomous state in Darfur and the payment of a percentage of government oil revenues.

Rebels deny the charge. But in a statement issued after the breakdown of the talks, the rebel group proposed including their demands in the on-going peace process between the Sudanese government and the southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement.

The government has agreed to an oil revenue sharing deal with the SPLA rebels and an overall peace agreement is expected to be signed in the coming weeks, ending two decades of war in southern Sudan.

But regional analysts say the rising violence in western Sudan shows the government appears to be in no mood to negotiate a similar deal with the Darfur rebels any time soon.