A senior U.N. official in the Central African Republic says fighting between rebel and government forces earlier this month has completely devastated Birao, the main town in the north-eastern part of the country, close to the border with Sudan's Darfur region. He says most of the town's inhabitants have fled the violence. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

For the first time since fighting between Government forces and UFDR militants resumed on March 3, a U.N. team was able to gain access to Birao two days ago. U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in the Central African Republic, Toby Lanzer, who led the mission, says he was shocked by what he saw.

In a telephone interview from the capital, Bangui, Lanzer tells VOA the city was virtually empty.

"Ninety-five percent of the 14,000 people had fled," he said. "We saw no more than 600 people in Birao. And, I think what was particularly troubling was the state in which we found the town. Seventy percent of the homes had been torched. The hospital was completely empty and the schools had been emptied. And, basically, there is no town of Birao as we knew it just a few weeks back."

Lanzer describes the atmosphere of Birao as surrealistic. He says it was like walking through a ghost town. More troubling still, he says, is that an aerial view of the region indicates that a number of villages surrounding Birao also appear to have been burned down.

Decades of recurrent armed conflict, political instability and poor governance have devastated the country's 4.2 million people. The United Nations estimates one quarter of the total population is affected by the widespread insecurity throughout the North. Nearly 300,000 people are internally displaced and thousands more have become refugees in neighboring countries.

The rebels are fighting for a share of power with the central government. Political negotiations to end the standoff are underway.

Lanzer says it is difficult to know who is most to blame for the destruction of Birao, although most people point their fingers at the militants. He says no one really knows what has happened to the 14,000 people who fled the town and locating them is a priority.

"We were told that some had gone to the bush around Birao," he said. "We were told that others had gone as far as Sudan. And, I think that really tells you how bad it must have been. If you are fleeing from the Central African Republic to go to Darfur to seek safe haven, that really is quite a turn of events and speaks enormously of the violence that struck that region."

Lanzer says another U.N. team will go to Birao on Saturday to do a more in-depth assessment of peoples' needs. He says priorities will certainly include shelter, non-food items and psychological counseling for the hundreds of survivors who, he describes, as being dazed and numbed by their experience.

He says humanitarian aid must be delivered quickly because when the rainy season begins in May the region will be cut off from road transport for six months.