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    UN Says Armed Men Block Transfer of Darfur Refugees From Chad Border

    Lisa Schlein

    The U.N. Refugee Agency says armed men have prevented aid workers from moving thousands of refugees from Darfur away from the Chad-Sudan border. The UNHCR calls the actions by so-called unknown armed elements, alarming. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

    Thousands of refugees from Sudan's conflict-ridden Darfur province began fleeing to Chad a week ago to escape deadly attacks by government-backed Janjaweed militia.

    The U.N. refugee agency estimates around 9,000 newly arrived refugees are scattered along the border between Chad and Sudan. And, there are reports that more refugees are trickling in.

    U.N. refugee spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis says efforts to move the refugees away from the volatile border to safer campsites inland were blocked by the presence of armed men.

    She says the identity of the men is unknown, nor did the men give any reason for their actions. But, she says it was clear to aid workers they would not be able to relocate the refugees.

    "The situation is so serious that our representative in Chad is now at the border trying to find a solution to this problem which is leaving the refugees extremely exposed and vulnerable," she said. "The area is highly insecure with armed groups roaming around and they pose a real threat to the refugees and the workers. And, also, in this region at night, the temperatures drop to around freezing. So, it is extremely cold, and that also is a threat to the well-being and lives of the refugees."

    Pagonis says a humanitarian mission led by the UNHCR found the group of refugees that was initially prevented from boarding the UN trucks in the Birak area on Sunday. She says 70 percent of the refugees are women and children and they were in very poor condition.

    She says the aid workers arranged to return within a few days with urgently needed relief supplies.

    She says the humanitarian team has continued to look for refugees from Darfur and has made various arrangements with them when found.

    "The team moved on to another location to find refugees who had been there, but we had found they had moved away, scared by rumors of imminent Janjaweed attacks," she said. "The newly arrived refugees are exhausted. Women report being raped. Children have been separated from their families. Many of the arrivals around Birak had already been internally displaced in West Darfur and living in camps there."

    Pagonis says the UNHCR office in West Darfur reports many internally displaced families who did not flee to Chad are reporting children missing in the area of Sirba. She says the agency will work with the International Committee of the Red Cross to try to reunite children with parents as soon as possible.

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