U.N.: 12,000 refugees flee Darfur for Chad after air strikes

GENEVA -- Up to 12,000 refugees fled Sudan's Darfur region to neighboring Chad over the weekend following air strikes by the Sudanese military and thousands more may be coming, the U.N. refugee agency said Sunday.

The agency was bringing emergency assistance to the Chad border where the Darfur refugees were giving detailed descriptions of air attacks Friday on three West Darfur towns.

The refugees are "destitute and terrified," said Helene Caux, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees headquartered in Geneva. "They told of their villages being looted and burned, and encircled by militia." Most of the new refugees in Chad are men, and they told the U.N. that thousands of women and children are on their way, Caux added.

U.N. officials say the worsening situation in Darfur has been exacerbated by a recent rebel attack on the capital of neighboring Chad. Chad has accused Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir of backing those rebels in a bid to prevent deployment of a European peacekeeping force in the Chad-Sudan border region where some 400,000 refugees are living.

Sudan's Arab-dominated government has been accused of unleashing more attacks by its allied janjaweed militias, which are accused of committing the worst atrocities against Darfur's ethnic African communities. At least 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced since the violence began five years ago.

U.N. resolutions ignored

On Friday, Sudanese helicopter gunships and fixed-wing aircraft bombed the towns of Sirba, Sileia and Abu Suruj while striking at rebel forces, which have been trying to consolidate their positions in western Darfur.

Several U.N. resolutions ban military flights over the region, but the Sudanese military has regularly ignored them.

The Sudanese army said its attacks forced rebels to retreat into neighboring Chad, a provocative accusation at a time of escalating tension between the two countries. Both nations accuse each other of hosting hostile rebel groups, allegations that became even more sensitive after Chadian rebels attacked Chad's capital last weekend.

Darfur rebels have denied any of their fighters were in the towns attacked by the government Friday, and said some 200 people were killed.

Caux said the refugees are reporting that their villages were also attacked by men on horses and camels, a description similar to those of earlier incidents involving the janjaweed.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday strongly condemned the attacks on western Darfur and demanded that all parties adhere to international humanitarian law, which prohibits military attacks on civilians.

The spike in violence on both sides of the border comes a year after the U.N. and African Union launched a new effort to get a political settlement for Darfur and a month after a joint AU-U.N. force took over peacekeeping duties in Darfur from a beleaguered AU force.

The U.N. envoy to Darfur, Jan Eliasson, and U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno, told the U.N. Security Council on Friday that intense fighting in western Darfur and a dramatic deterioration in security throughout the Sudanese province have hurt prospects for a political settlement.

But the porous Chad-Sudan border may not be much safer than Darfur for the refugees.

Chad is still reeling from last week's fighting between rebels and government troops. The rebels, who accuse President Idriss Deby of corruption and embezzling millions in oil revenue, attacked the capital after advancing in trucks in a matter of days from their eastern bases near the Sudan border. They were repelled after bloody battles.

The displacement of tens of thousands of Chadians added to the already daunting challenge for humanitarian workers in the region. Some even fled across the Chad-Sudan border in the other direction.

"We don't know where all the armed groups are or where they are heading to, so the whole border is just very volatile and dangerous," Caux told The Associated Press. "The refugees are moving back and forth from one dangerous to another dangerous situation. It's completely surreal."

Caux said about half of the Darfur refugees were spread around near the Chad city of Koruk in a border area where "there are a lot of armed men." The situation of the other half in nearby Figeira was not much better with the refugees sleeping on the ground, out in the open, or on whatever mats they were able to bring with them.

Caux said eight trucks with sleeping mats, blankets and jerry cans will be sent to eastern Chad on Monday. Officials would also travel to the Darfur border city of Gereida to offer immediate transportation to refugee camps within Chad, where the agency already cares for 240,000 Darfur refugees.

Caux said the U.N. also was looking at ways to assist people still trapped in the three towns bombed by Sudan.

"Thousands of households have been directly affected by the bombings and attacks," she said.