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Attacks force UNHCR to leave eastern Chad

  • Story Highlights
  • Armed attacks in town of Guereda forces UNHCR to pull staff from refugee camps
  • UNHCR spokeswoman: Guereda "a place without law and order"
  • UNHCR has 12 refugee camps, 6 field offices and over 200 staff in eastern Chad
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(CNN) -- A series of armed attacks in the eastern Chad town of Guereda has forced the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to pull most of its staff out of two nearby refugee camps that house refugees from Darfur.

On Thursday, four UNHCR staff members and 28 local and international staff members of UNHCR's implementing partners were relocated to Abeche, about 300 miles (483 kilometers) to the southwest.

Local authorities do not have the necessary means to protect them, UNHCR said.

Speaking from Abeche, UNHCR spokeswoman Annette Rehl described Guereda as "a place without law and order (where) people act with impunity."

She cited carjacking as the most pressing security concern there: "They need cars and telecommunications equipment."

The situation was brought to a head by tensions that have been brewing since Monday between opposition forces and the Chadian National Army.

Since Tuesday, five vehicles belonging to the UNHCR, its non-governmental organization partners and Medecins sans Frontieres Suisse (Doctors Without Borders Switzerland) have been stolen at gunpoint, Rehl said.

On Wednesday, two armed men in military uniforms climbed over a wall and jumped into the UNHCR compound, she said. They threatened UNHCR guards with guns and took two vehicles.

In addition, armed men entered UNHCR Guereda compounds on Thursday, she said, and an assailant with a Kalashnikov rifle entered the UNHCR guesthouse in a Guereda compound but was chased off by members of UNHCR's local partner.

"It was a terrible experience," one UNHCR staff member said. "This guy broke into the guesthouse. He had this Kalashnikov and it was just by pure chance that nobody was injured."

On Thursday, in an effort to protect the remain vehicles in Guereda, a convoy of eight vehicles was traveling from Guereda to Abeche, Rehl said.

She said increased clashes between two ethnic groups, the Zaghawas and the Tamas, have been affecting the local population.

Most UNHCR staff have left the two camps -- Mile and Kounoungou, she said. "We still have some units staying behind; we're just not operating at full capacity. Only essential staff are staying in Guereda at the time being."

In cases of temporary relocation, UNHCR convention is to officially hand over management of the camps to refugee leaders. Rehl said each camp has several committees in place. These are composed of refugees and include women and the elderly.

UNHCR staff that stayed behind in Guereda distribute essentials, including food and water, to both camps. Security concerns for refugees remain high.

"If humanitarian workers are not around, it is impossible to provide adequate protection to the refugees," said Jorge Holly, head of the UNHCR field office in Guereda "But the situation here is getting out of control and we also have to protect our staff and partners."

UNHCR administers two camps in Guereda, Mile and Kounoungou, where up to 30,000 refugees from Darfur now reside.

"Minimum essential staff will remain in place, so as to ensure basic support in refugee camps" said Serge Male. UNHCR's top official in Chad. "We hope to be able to resume our full activities very soon."

UNHCR has 12 refugee camps, six field offices and over 200 employees in eastern Chad.

Asked when UNHCR staff would return to the camps, Rehl said, "We need to see how the situation moves, we are having security meetings. We have to see what happens in the political context. Tomorrow this could change. This is typical of Chad." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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