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UN Refugee Chief Concerned About Refugees in Eastern Chad

On a two-day visit to Chad, the UN's top refugee official is trying to raise awareness about the volatile conditions in refugee camps in eastern Chad. His agency is looking into the relocation of these camps away from what has become a center of violence among rebels, refugees, residents and soldiers. Phuong Tran reports from VOA's Dakar Bureau.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, met with Chad's Prime Minister Pascal Yoadimnadji, government and UN officials on Thursday to discuss what the UN refugee agency calls one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

Guterres said he is studying the possibility of relocating more than 200,000 refugees to an area 600 kilometers deeper into Chad, away from what has become a deadly and lawless border zone.

The dozen refugee camps strung along the Chadian-Sudanese border have been in the cross-fire of army raids, inter-ethnic clashes that some say have been instigated by the Sudanese government and attacks by Chadian rebels who are hoping to oust President Idriss Deby.

The UN refugee agency says that since last month, 70 villages in Chad along the border have been attacked, burned or emptied, and that more than $1 million worth of UN aid was stolen from a warehouse.

Guterres said a group of representatives from aid agencies and the Chadian government already visited possible new sites for refugee camps. He said the mass relocation would be an "enormous challenge."

Tens of thousands of Sudanese have fled the Darfur region since 2003 to escape political and inter-ethnic fighting.

Jennifer Pagonis, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, is accompanying Guterres on his visit in Chad.

"It's always an extraordinarily difficult situation, not only because of the political situation in terms of what is going on in Darfur, but also the environmental implications for a country, especially a desert region, of having 200,000 refugees on its territory," she said.

The UN has given the Sudanese government until January 1 to accept hybrid UN-African Union peacekeeping forces. The Sudanese government had rejected such forces, suggesting that the West wanted access to Sudan's oil.

Under the "hybrid" plan approved in Addis Ababa last November, some 13,000 U.N. troops and logistics personnel would go to Darfur to reinforce the beleaguered 7,000 member AU observer mission already there.

Guterres said that this peacekeeping force is essential to prevent the entire Central African region from descending into violence.

International agencies scaled back their operations and pulled staff out of eastern Chad after an escalation in clashes between government soldiers and rebel forces, as well as attacks by janjaweed, Arab militiamen supported by the Sudanese government.

Refugee camps along the eastern border of Chad are mostly run by the refugees themselves, with international aid staff flying in for a few days at a time to help, says Jennifer Pagonis.

A group that is maintaining a skeleton staff in eastern Chad is the UN children's advocacy organization, UNICEF. The advisor for child protection for Central and West Africa, Jean-Claude Legrand, is concerned about child soldiers being recruited directly from the refugee camps.

"We can use this opportunity to put much more pressure on the Chadian government to renew their commitment to not recruit children," he said. "We have a lot of anecdotal evidence of this recruitment."

UNICEF estimates that more than half of the refugees in the camps are children, and that both the rebels and government have recruited children to fight.

The UN High Commissioner Guterres said that relocating the refugees would help avoid the forced recruitment of refugees by armed groups that patrol the porous, desolate Sudanese-Chadian border.

Meanwhile, some 50,000 refugees fled the Central African Republic into Chad last week to escape fighting in their country. They are joining more than 200,000 Sudanese refugees and some 90,000 Chadians displaced by fighting.

Relief organizations have been requesting an international security force in Chad to protect civilians and refugees. Chad's President Deby has agreed to such a force. Last week, the UN Security Council said it was awaiting recommendations on improving security in eastern Chad.