The United Nations refugee agency today evacuated most of its staff from its office in a town in eastern Chad after a series of armed attacks this week on the agency and other aid organizations operating in the troubled region.
Five vehicles belonging to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), its non-governmental partners and Médecins Sans Frontières Suisse have been stolen at gunpoint in the past 72 hours, while the UNHCR compound in Guereda was entered by armed men on two nights this week.
Serge Malé, UNHCR's representative in Chad, said the agency was “left only with one choice, much to our regret, which is to relocate most staff out of the Guereda area, as we cannot continue to perform our activities in favour of refugees.”
Four UNHCR staff and 28 local and international staff with the agency's partners were flown to the regional centre of Abeché today, while a convoy of eight vehicles also travelled from Guereda so that the few remaining vehicles in the town were not attacked.
A minimum amount of staff will remain to ensure there is basic support in the two refugee camps, Mile and Kounoungou, operating in the area. The two camps – host almost 30,000 refugees from Sudan's war-wracked Darfur region – have been officially handed over to refugee leaders to manage while UNHCR staff numbers are reduced.
The most serious incident occurred in the early hours of Wednesday, when two armed men wearing military uniforms jumped the wall of the UNHCR compound and threatened the guards with guns so that they can steal two vehicles.
Early this morning an unknown man armed with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle entered the UNHCR guesthouse before being chased off by staff members of the agency's local partner.
Tensions between the Chadian National Army and opposition forces have been building in Guereda and the wider region since Monday, while the problems in the town have been exacerbated by ethnic clashes between Zaghawas and Tamas.
Jorge Holly, head of the UNHCR field office in Guereda, said the local authorities do not have the necessary means to protect agency staff or other aid workers.
“In this area, we have a state of complete impunity,” he said. “Guereda is getting very vulnerable. If humanitarian workers are not around, it is impossible to provide adequate protection to the refugees. But the situation here is getting out of control and we also have to protect our staff and partners.”
The security situation is also tense inside the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, in the southwest of the country, with the international staff of both UN agencies and NGOs advised to stay at home.
Eastern Chad is currently home to about 240,000 Sudanese living in 12 official refugee camps, which have sprung up since the Darfur conflict began more than four years ago.
Meanwhile, about 5,800 refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) have arrived in several border villages in southern Chad in the past few weeks, fleeing attacks by zaraguinas or cattle rustlers in the north of their homeland.
Last year the Security Council authorized the establishment of a multi-dimensional UN presence in Chad and the CAR, including a peacekeeping mission to be known as MINURCAT, to try to stabilize the region.
In a related development, a meeting of troop and police-contributing countries for MINURCAT and two other missions – the hybrid UN-African Union force in Darfur (UNAMID) and the force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known as MONUC) – was held at UN Headquarters in New York today.
General Per Five, a military adviser with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), told the meeting that UNAMID is still lacking helicopters, a key capacity for the mission to operate successfully.
Assistant Secretary-General Jane Holl Lute said it was vital to move ahead with the deployment of UNAMID as MINURCAT will not succeed if the mission in neighbouring Darfur is failing.
In Addis Ababa, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned against cross-border instability. “The situation in Chad and the continued military conflict there should not spill over negatively to the peace and security in Darfur,” the deployment of peacekeepers or the ongoing political process in Darfur, he told a press briefing.