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Sudan: Darfur - Refugees reach Central African Republic after 200-km trek

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This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis - to whom quoted text may be attributed - at the press briefing, on 1 June 2007, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

We are preparing to deliver emergency aid for some 1,500 newly arrived Sudanese refugees from Dafak in southern Darfur who walked 200 kilometres to the Central African Republic to find safety saying their homes had been bombarded by planes and helicopters. A UNHCR-led inter-agency assessment mission earlier this week to Sam-Ouandja, a remote town in north eastern Central African Republic (CAR), found the refugees, mainly women and children, who said they had walked for ten days to reach CAR, following paths only accessible by foot or donkey. They also claim they were repeatedly attacked by "Janjaweed" armed militia between 12 and 18 May, adding there were more air attacks even as they were fleeing towards the CAR.

A UNHCR-commissioned registration team from the CAR National Refugee Commission is expected to arrive today in Sam-Ouandja and start registering the refugees. The refugees are of African origin, mostly from the Masalit, Fur, Dojou, Tama and Kara ethnic communities. They fled the recent escalation of violence in south Darfur. More refugees are arriving daily in Sam-Ouandja which is about 950 kilometres north-east of the capital Bangui and 80 kilometres from the Sudanese border.

We are preparing the first delivery of some 600 rolls of plastic sheeting - enough for temporary shelters for up to 3,000 people. Other UN agencies are arranging the delivery of food, water and sanitation supplies.

According to reports from our assessment team, the refugees are trying to feed and shelter themselves. Women are collecting mangoes and the men have approached nearby farms to make some money. Many families had begun building makeshift houses. Some refugees are trying to trade their livestock. Despite earlier reports saying refugees were mixed with armed combatants, the assessment team found no evidence of armed elements among the refugees.

Refugees say they will not return to Darfur before basic safety for returnees can be guaranteed. Many of them expressed fear of further attacks and requested the CAR authorities to provide additional protection in Sam-Ouandja as the town was also attacked earlier this year by the CAR rebels - the second time in four months. The town now suffers from a shortage of food and medical supplies and schools are closed.

CAR hosts some 10,000 refugees, mainly from Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Chad. There are also more than 212,000 people who have been displaced within their own country and 78,000 refugees from CAR in neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Sudan.