Dakar — For the first time, heavy fighting between Sudanese rebel groups and the government of Sudan has spilled across the border from the embattled Darfur region into eastern Chad, aid workers said on Monday.
Previously, such clashes had involved the Chadian army in pursuit of rebels seeking to oust Chadian President Idriss Deby.
The weekend fighting signals an escalation of violence in eastern Chad, but aid agencies said on Monday that humanitarian operations would continue.
"Violence in eastern Chad, violence in Darfur is problematic for all of us. We are having less and less access to a number of internally displaced people in that part of that world and it does concern us and other UN agencies operating in the region," Jean-Jacques Graisse, senior deputy executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), told IRIN in Dakar on Monday.
"The numbers we are talking about in eastern Chad are lower than Darfur, nevertheless it is a preoccupying situation," he said. The upswing in violence "has not stopped WFP feeding the quarter million Sudanese refugees who have fled into eastern Chad," he added.
Heavy fighting between Sudanese government troops and rebels with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) started on Saturday close to the border town of Tine in the Darfur region of western Sudan.
Clashes between JEM and fighters loyal to another Sudanese rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A), left at least 11 civilians dead at the end of September in Gereida, a town in west Darfur. That is close to the latest fighting, but it could not be confirmed whether the clashes were related.
Heavy machine-gun fire was heard in Oure Cassoni on the Chadian side of the border on Saturday afternoon, an aid agency official in eastern Chad said by telephone. On Saturday evening, a Sudanese army Antonov dropped five or six bombs on JEM positions close to the camp, the official said.
Fighting spread into Chad after wounded fighters started scattering, according to reports. 80 of them have congregated at a refugee camp in Oure Cassoni, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.
A dozen refugee camps in eastern Chad host about 250,000 Sudanese who have fled looting, raping and killing in the neighbouring Darfur region of Sudan. At least 200,000 people have been killed in the violence in Sudan and more than 2.5 million have been displaced.
The camp at Oure Cassoni is less than 20 km from the Chad-Sudan border and 400 km northeast of the aid hub Abeche.
Aid workers contacted in Abeche on Monday said JEM fighters were still present in the border town of Bahai, 12 km south of Oure Cassoni on the Chad side of the border, but calm had returned. Local authorities attributed sporadic gunfire heard in Bahai on Monday morning to JEM rebels test-firing weapons they had seized from the Sudanese army.
The Chadian government has said it is dispatching its army to push the remaining JEM fighters back into Sudan.
Anahita Kar, spokesperson for ICRC in the Chadian capital, N'djamena, said it was too soon to tell what would happen to the injured fighters. The Red Cross normally deals with prisoners of war and people displaced by conflict.
Matthew Conway, UNHCR spokesperson, said getting the remaining fighters away from the camps near Bahai and Oure Cassoni is a priority.
"We are making regular efforts to get the message throughout the camp that it cannot be used as a sanctuary for rebels, as it is close to the border and if the government of Sudan decided it is serving as a sanctuary for rebels, they might determine it is a legitimate military target, and that would be a worst-case scenario," he said.
UNHCR and the government of Chad signed an agreement last month to add 75 more Chadian gendarmes to the 200 already provided around UNHCR's main camps in Bahai, Iriba, Guereda, Farchana and Goz Beida. However, aid workers have said that is a fraction of the force needed to police and defend the vast and remote desert camps.
UN agencies and NGOs in eastern Chad said they were operating without interruption since the weekend's escalation.
"We are still more or less operating as usual, but with the highest level of precaution," UNHCR's Conway said. "A general food distribution is scheduled for the Oure Cassoni camp and there is talk of holding off for a number of days to be sure the conditions are right for it to take place. No refugees have been injured but there is a high level of anxiety and tension," he said.
Further south of the weekend's fighting, one of the most remote aid agency outposts at Koloy, 200 km south of Abeche, was temporarily downsized last week because of insecurity. A team from Medecins Sans Frontieres-France (MSF) pulled back to the town Goz Beida, but was able to return to Koloy over the weekend.
"We have not had to close and for now it's calm, except the reports of fighting in some areas. We reduced the team around Koloy temporarily because of security problems, but they have all gone back now," Bernard Nadjitessem, head of MSF's Abeche office, said.
MSF has recorded an additional 400 Chadian civilians arriving in villages around Koloy since Friday. Nadjitessem said the people had all moved because of continuing militia attacks on their villages and livestock.
Fighting between Darfur rebel groups, government forces and militias has escalated throughout Darfur in recent weeks, according to UN agencies, the African Union and news reports. Aid agencies have deemed the region around Bahai as a stronghold of rebels opposed to the Sudanese government in Khartoum since at least early 2006.
Fighting on the Chadian side of the border has also escalated in recent weeks, as the Chadian army has been fighting rebel groups unrelated to either the JEM or SLM/A that have vowed to overthrow Chad's government.
As Chad's army has focused on fighting the anti-Chad rebels, senior UN officials and human rights experts have warned it has left its border and civilian population unguarded against attacks from militia groups. More than 55,000 Chadians have already fled their homes.
Aid agencies have also complained they are exposed. Compounds in eastern Chad have frequently been looted and 40 aid agency cars and trucks have been stolen since November 2005, including one each in the last week from the NGOs CARE, Action Against Hunger (Spain), Doctors Without Borders (Luxembourg) and ACTED. In May a worker with the UN children's agency (UNICEF) was involved in a near-fatal shooting.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]