N'DJAMENA, June 17 (Reuters) - French military planes on Sunday began airlifting tonnes of relief supplies and food aid to refugee camps in eastern Chad in one of the first overseas humanitarian initiatives ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The operation followed a visit this month to the camps near the border with Sudan's conflict-torn Darfur region by Sarkozy's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
Since October, tens of thousands of civilians in eastern Chad have fled cross-border attacks from Darfur by Arab Janjaweed militia and related ethnic clashes between Arab and non-Arab communities in the volatile, racially-mixed region.
A French army Transall transport plane flew the first cargo of up to 7 tonnes of supplies on Sunday to Goz Beida, where the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR runs camps for displaced Chadian civilians. A second flight was due in the afternoon.
UNHCR and French officials said the logistics operation aimed to put stockpiles of relief items, like blankets, plastic sheeting, buckets, and food in place before the start of the rainy season next month made roads and bush airstrips unusable.
"We need to finish before the rains. There is a need for urgency, because the rainy season is going to start in earnest at the beginning of July and the roads won't be passable any more," Colonel Vincent Tesniere of the French military contingent stationed in Chad told Reuters.
"This airlift is mainly for the displaced Chadians," said Serge Male, UNHCR representative in Chad. He put the number of displaced at close to 170,000, most of them located in the Goz Beida-Koukou Angarana area, not far from the Sudan border.
East Chad also has a string of UNHCR-run camps housing more than 240,000 Sudanese refugees who have fled the political and ethnic conflict in Darfur that has killed around 200,000 people and forced more than two million from their homes.
The U.N. World Food Programme says it needs to pre-position a six-month supply of food to feed the displaced Chadians and Sudanese refugees during the June-November rainy season.
Tesniere said French flights would also be supplying the Sudanese refugee camps in eastern Chad.
UNHCR's Male said progress appeared to have been made towards the possible deployment of an international force to protect civilians, refugees and aid workers in east Chad, where rebels are fighting to topple Chadian President Idriss Deby.
When Kouchner visited Chad a week ago, Deby appeared to drop his earlier resistance to the deployment of such a force.
"The issue seems now to have moved from an 'if' to a 'how' and the how is being discussed," Male said.
He added that after months of successive violence in eastern Chad, things had become calmer there since April and this was making it easier to carry out humanitarian operations.
He attributed this to recent peace deals between feuding neighbours Chad and Sudan, brokered by Libya and Saudi Arabia.
Male also welcomed the recent acceptance by Sudan, after months of resistance, of a joint African Union-U.N. force of at least 20,000 troops and police to be deployed in Darfur.
"All these steps are helping," the UNHCR official said. (Additional reporting by Gerard Bon in Paris and Pascal Fletcher in Dakar)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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