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UN Refugee Agency: People Desperate to Leave CAR - 2003-03-16

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said more than 4,000 Central African refugees and Chadian returnees have fled to southern Chad over the past week, as fighting between the Central African government and rebels intensifies.

The agency said people are desperate to leave the Central African Republic. Since mid-February, it reports, more than 30,000 people have fled to southern Chad. But it said the situation they encounter there is often as dangerous as the one from which they fled.

The agency said it has many concerns for their safety. It said the situation in and around the Chadian border town of Gore is very bad.

UNHCR Spokesman Rupert Colville said U.N. aid workers have received very worrying reports of refugees being harassed, particularly of refugee women by Chadian soldiers. He said the soldiers allegedly have tried repeatedly to abduct refugee women from a transit center managed by the private aid group, Doctors Without Borders.

Mr. Colville said there have been other worrying incidents. "Around 50 soldiers traveling in five pickup trucks went on the rampage in Gore, shooting in the air and creating panic. The streets emptied quickly, the schools were closed, the soldiers stole motorcycles, bicycles, radios from the refugees and from the Chadian returnees. They also stole two vehicles from MSF [Medecin Sans Frontieres, or Doctors without Borders], though these were later returned," he said.

Mr. Colville said the refugees complained that those who had gone to the local customs office to reclaim their possessions soon after the raid were beaten by soldiers. He said the military now has been ordered to stay out of Gore town.

In light of the increasingly serious situation, the UNHCR said, it has reopened its office in Ndjamena, Chad, and is setting up a field office in Gore.

Meanwhile, the agency reports hundreds of Central Africans in the southwest of the country also are fleeing to the Republic of Congo to escape weeks of fighting between the army and rebel forces.