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UNHCR Concerned for Safety of Refugees in Chad

The United Nations refugee agency says it is alarmed over the possible impact of the violence in Chad on hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sudan's conflict-ridden province of Darfur. The agency says refugees have been caught up in cross-border attacks. And, on Friday, Chad's president threatened to expel Sudanese refugees, unless the world takes steps to stop what he calls Sudan's efforts to undermine his government.

Earlier this week, the U.N. says, a large group of armed men briefly took control of the Goz-Amer camp, housing nearly 18,000 refugees in eastern Chad.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says the agency began reducing its staff after that attack. In the wake of Thursday's rebel attack on the Chad capital, N'djamena, UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis says the agency is planning to evacuate non-essential personnel and dependents from the area.

"At the moment, it is going to be a wait and see situation," she said. "Basic camp services need to be kept running for the refugees. They are in a very difficult situation. There is nowhere else for them to go to. So, we will just take it as it comes for the time being."

The UNHCR takes care of an estimated 200,000 refugees who fled fighting in Darfur. They have become increasingly vulnerable to attacks.

UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres has warned, unrest on both sides of the Sudan-Chad border is posing a growing risk to civilians, the displaced and aid workers. He called this a threat to regional stability.

Last month, The UNHCR says, a group of armed men broke into a camp, killed a guard, wounded another and shot an aid worker, who eventually died. The agency says, several weeks ago, rebels from Darfur forcibly recruited hundreds of refugees to fight in the war.

After that incident, the UNHCR asked the Chadian government to increase security around the camps. But, Pagonis admits the situation remains dangerous and could get worse.

"We always look at a worst-case scenario," she said. "But, in this case, it is particularly difficult to almost imagine how one could cope with that. This is an extremely hostile region of the world. It is a desert region. It has been one of the major challenges that we have faced of even find sites for camps where refugees can have water. So, where they would flee to, if the situation deteriorated is a question that is unanswerable at the moment, and, indeed, we feel it incredibly acutely that the options are very, very limited."

Pagonis says the camps are calm for now, and everyone hopes they will stay that way. She urges all parties in the conflict to respect the humanitarian and civilian character of the camps, and to leave those who have fled the terrors of Darfur in peace.