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Aid Workers Withdrawn From Eastern Chad Following Attacks

The U.N. refugee agency reports more than 40 staff and aid workers from private organizations have been withdrawn from the Eastern Chad town of Guereda following a series of armed attacks in the area.   The aid workers have been relocated to the town of Abeche, where UNHCR manages 12 refugee camps for 240,000 refugees from Sudan's conflict-ridden province of Darfur.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The worst incidents occurred on Wednesday and Thursday when suspected rebels entered the UNHCR compound in Guereda.  They stole five vehicles at gunpoint. 

U.N. refugee spokesman, William Spindler, says the agency is upset that it has been forced to relocate its staff out of the area.  But, he says, it had no other choice.

"The whole region is very volatile and only last December, we lost a staff member in southern Chad.  So, we really need to do everything we can to ensure the safety of our staff," said Mr. Spindler.

Spindler says this is not the first time the UNHCR has had to reduce its presence in the region.  He says there have been similar situations in the past.  He says the agency has made provisions for the refugees.

"Some of the remaining staff in Guereda went to the two refugee camps yesterday to distribute food and water and provide health care," he added.  "They reported that the refugees are very worried about the deteriorating security situation.  Tensions between opposition forces and the Chadian National Army have been mounting since Monday, leading to increased security incidents, especially in Guereda, which lies about 165 kilometers northeast of Abeche.  There are also reports of opposition groups moving towards the capital, N'Djamena, where our staff have been advised to stay at home." 

Further complicating the situation, Spindler says some 2,000 Sudanese refugees from southwest Darfur arrived in Chad a few days ago and nearly 6,000 refugees from the Central African Republic have arrived in several border villages in southern Chad over the past few weeks.

The UNHCR cares for an estimated 240,000 refugees from Darfur in 12 sprawling camps and 180,000 internally displaced Chadians in the east. 

Spindler says the camps have been officially handed over to refugee leaders to manage until the aid workers are able to return and resume humanitarian operations.

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