18,000 Sudanese refugees reported

Fighting appears to intensify in west

January 24, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DAKAR, Senegal - The United Nations refugee agency said yesterday that it was investigating reports that as many as 18,000 Sudanese refugees, fleeing fresh attacks on their villages over the past week, had crossed over into the neighboring central African country of Chad.

The latest influx, adding to the 95,000 Sudanese refugees camped out near the Chad-Sudan border, suggests that fighting in the western Sudanese region called Darfur continues to intensify, even as peace talks seek to end Sudan's other war, lasting 20 years, between the government in Khartoum and rebels in the country's south.

According to wire service reports, the chief mediator for the talks said yesterday that negotiations between the government and the rebels were inching forward and that they had reached agreement on the control of two of three disputed areas.

Ending the conflict in Sudan, Africa's longest-running civil war, has become a foreign policy priority for the Bush administration, which has said it would consider lifting sanctions against Khartoum if an accord were signed.

To complicate matters, a second war, in Darfur, erupted last February between Sudan's Arab-dominated government and insurgents who claim to represent Africans in the west.

Conditions inside Darfur are almost impossible to verify; the government has barred aid agencies from much of the west, citing security grounds. Last week, the aid group Doctors Without Borders said the government had shut down a camp for displaced people in the Darfur town of Nyala.

In Chad, the latest refugees from the Darfur fighting told U.N. officials that Sudanese troops had attacked their villages starting Jan. 16, burning houses, blowing up wells and driving out villagers.

Thousands of them are camping out in a dry river bed near the Chadian town of Koulbous, about 14 miles inside Chad. Local officials told the refugee agency that some 10,000 others had crossed over into Chadian hamlets farther south, the United Nations reported.

Refugees reported bombings and cross-border attacks inside Chadian territory. The United Nations has begun relocating the refugees to more formal camps.

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