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UN Moves Sudanese Refugees to Safer Camps - 2004-01-17

The United Nations refugee agency has begun moving the first of tens-of-thousands of Sudanese refugees from the insecure Sudan-Chad border to a safer inland camp. Lisa Schlein in Geneva reports, the UNHCR estimates 95,000 Sudanese have fled across the border to Chad since last March to escape fighting in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

The agency says the Sudanese refugees are scattered along a 600-kilometer border between Chad and Sudan. Spokesman Ron Redmond says the refugees are victims of regular raids by Sudanese militiamen who cross into Chad to steal their livestock. He says it is critical to move the refugees to safer sites away from the border as quickly as possible.

"We hope to move as many of the 95,000 as possible away from the border, beginning with fairly small convoys at the start, just to see how it works, and then it will become, as I say, daily," he said.

Fighting in Darfur erupted early last year between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudanese Liberation Army. The SLA is one of several Christian and animist rebel groups waging war against the Muslim government in the North. It is not involved in the peace talks that reportedly are near completion in Kenya. Those talks are between the Sudan government and another rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

Mr. Redmond says the refugees are being transported to a camp 55 kilometers from the border. The camp will hold up to 12,000 people. It is the first of several new sites being prepared for the Sudanese refugees.

The UNHCR spokesman says all the refugees will have to be moved before the beginning of the rainy season in May, when the roads will become impassable.

Mr. Redmond says the U.N. and other aid agencies are carrying out a campaign to inform the refugees scattered along the border that the move to safer sites is under way.

"We have been sending mobile teams out on the border to conduct an information campaign," he explained. "We have used local radio where we can, trying to get word out to these people. But a lot of them are living in makeshift sites, where it is really difficult to get information to them."

Mr. Redmond says the refugees are living under appalling conditions. Most crossed the border with nothing and will need emergency assistance to survive, until they are moved into the new camps.