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Fighting in Senegal's Casamance Province drives thousands to Gambia: UN agency

Fighting in Senegal's Casamance Province drives thousands to Gambia: UN agency

More than 2,200 people have fled to Gambia in the past few days following an upsurge of fighting in the neighbouring Senegalese province of Casamance, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said in a statement issued today in Geneva.

The first group of refugees reportedly crossed into southern Gambia on 18 May. The same day, UNHCR staff and officials from the Gambia Immigration Department travelled down to the border, some 200 kilometres south-east of the capital, Banjul.

The influx of refugees comes amid reports of intensified fighting in Casamance Province between government forces and rebels of the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), UNHCR said.

The majority of those fleeing the fighting so far have been women and children. UNHCR staff on the border reported that the refugees were exhausted, but appeared generally to be in good health.

According to UNHCR, the refugees say they fled from villages in the northern part of the troubled Casamance region after government troops launched a search operation for rebels. Gambian border authorities confirmed Tuesday that more refugees were streaming into the small West African nation.

Over the weekend, UNHCR began transferring the refugees from a makeshift site to a transit camp at Kwinella, in Kiang Province, some 70 kilometres north of the border.

The civil conflict in Senegal's southern Casamance Province began in 1982 and has simmered on since then, sometimes erupting into all-out war. It is one of Africa's "forgotten" civil conflicts, UNHCR said. Several peace agreements between the Government of Senegal and the separatist MFDC rebels have broken down in the past, with hard-line elements in the MFDC insisting on independence from Dakar.