By Betel Miarom
N'DJAMENA, June 17 (Reuters) - About 8,500 refugees from Central African Republic have fled into neighbouring Chad after clashes between soldiers and unidentified armed groups, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday.
"Most of them told us they fled their homes by night because of the insecurity which has intensified since June 3," Georges Menze, who heads UNHCR's office in Chad's southern town of Gore, said in a statement.
A senior officer in Central African Republic's army said its troops had been attacked by unidentified gunmen this month near the border and that there had been heavy losses on both sides. He said reinforcements had been sent to the area.
Central African Republic, a former French colony, is one of the world's poorest countries and has been shaken by a series of attempted coups and mutinies in the past decade.
Former army chief Francois Bozize seized power in a coup in 2003, helped by mercenaries from Chad.
Bozize won a presidential election in May, legitimising his position, but some of those hired guns he used two years ago have now turned to banditry in the remote border area.
Bozize's spokesman Alain George Ngatoua said Central African Republic's military had been working with Chad's army to try and clean up the border between the two countries.
UNHCR has sent high-protein biscuits, plastic sheeting and cooking sets to the refugees who have sought shelter in villages around the town of Yambodo, straining scarce resources.
Many of the new refugees are women and children from the Ouham region of northern Central African Republic. A UNHCR official in Chad said more refugees had arrived on Thursday.
"Some are staying with host families, others have started building makeshift shelters with wood and straw ... They are foraging for fruit in the wild. Food is scarce for everyone because of the drought and poor harvest," Menze said.
Seasonal rains have added to the misery. Some of the refugees were suffering from diarrhoea and malnutrition.
Chad, an arid former French colony hoping to get rich from a southern oil field, is already host to 30,000 refugees who fled Central African Republic after the 2003 coup.
There are also about 210,000 refugees from Sudan's Darfur region in the barren borderlands of eastern Chad.
"Life was very hard for the local population even before the refugees arrived and there are fears that the recent influx will further strain limited resources," the UNHCR statement said.
"The health and sanitation situation has not reached alarming levels yet but could quickly deteriorate," said Thadee Nzontunga, an aid worker with Italian non-government organisation COOPI, quoted in the UNHCR statement. (Additional reporting by Jean-Magloire Issa in Bangui)
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