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UNHCR Alarmed at Sudanese Rebel Infiltration in Refugee Camps

The U.N. refugee agency says it is very disturbed by reports of armed Sudanese rebels inside and near some refugee camps in eastern Chad. The UNHCR says it fears these rebels may try to recruit refugees to fight in Sudan's conflict-ridden province of Darfur.

This latest infiltration of armed men took place in the Oure Cassoni camp, the northern most of the 12 camps run by the UNHCR in eastern Chad. U.N. Refugee spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, says men identified as belonging to a Sudanese rebel armed movement were spotted earlier this week in and near this camp.

"Because of its close proximity to the Sudanese border- it is only seven kilometers away - the camp has been suspected of being used as a rest and recuperation base for Sudanese rebels. However, this is the first time that the rebels have been seen so openly in broad daylight in the camp, in their vehicles and walking around," she said. "On Tuesday morning, at least three pickups with some three to four men in military clothing in each of these vehicles were seen in the camp. They claimed they were visiting family members, needed medical care and getting cigarettes."

Pagonis says aid workers immediately informed local authorities about the infiltration. She says the refugees were reminded they must not get involved in political or military activity in Chad and most specifically not in the camps.

This is not the first time Sudanese rebels have infiltrated refugee camps in Eastern Chad. In March, armed men entered two of the 12 refugee camps run by the UNHCR. About 4,700 men and boys were recruited by them. In April, more recruitment reportedly took place in yet another camp.

Pagonis calls this situation totally unacceptable. She warns if military infiltration of the camps is not stopped, it could result in the suspension of humanitarian activities.

"If the camps become a target for military activity, then it becomes very difficult for humanitarian agencies to work in the camps. It puts humanitarian workers at risk. So, obviously, it is not a measure - I mean, we have got 27,000 refugees in this camp," she said. "Obviously, you do not want to cut them off from humanitarian aid. But, what we want to say is look this is the risk that you are running by allowing this to happen in these camps."

Pagonis says the responsibility for the security in and around the refugee camps rests with the Chadian government. She says the UNHCR is working with them on increasing their resources, on getting more and better equipment for the gendarmes.

The UNHCR cares for more than 200,000 refugees from Darfur in 12 camps in eastern Chad.