Darfur: aerial bombings and attacks lead thousands of civilians to flee to Chad

Geneva/Birak-Tchad - From February 8 to 10, the Sudanese army, assisted by militias, launched a large offensive in northwest Darfur. This military offensive, one of the most violent over the past few years, resulted in an immediate population displacement and the forced interruption of all medical activities in Seleia where MSF had been running a health centre project since 2006. Our team present in Chad, the neighbouring country, confirms that at least 7,000 new refugees, including Sudanese staff from MSF, reached the area of Birak after fleeing the towns of Abu Suruj, Sirba and Seleia now emptied of their population. This is only a fraction of the civilians directly affected by the offensive which are estimated to be around 50,000 people. According to the refugees, the attacks started on February 8, with aerial bombardment by military planes and attack helicopters. Testimonies of refugees tell the horror of the violence they were faced with. "We saw the soldiers surrounding our town before they started looting our houses setting them afire," said one of the inhabitants of Seleia who arrived in Birak region. The compound of the MSF team was attacked and looted, despite the fact that many women and children had sought refuge in the medical structure. Furthermore, the displaced population reports being further attacked, threatened and looted by roaming militias, while en route to Chad during the night. The refugees in Chad have gathered around villages, under trees, and have nothing but the clothes they wore when they fled. The MSF team has taken charge of some of the wounded in need of urgent medical care. The immediate priorities are to provide access to clean water and distribute shelter blankets, as the area is particularly cold and windy, and to set up medical consultations. "MSF is extremely worried about the fate of those populations that were left behind," said Huub Verhagen, MSF Head of Operations for Chad and Sudan. "Many families have been separated during the attack and are without news of those who remain in Darfur." Access to the region north of El Genina has been systematically refused to our international staff in Sudan since mid-December 2007, despite reports of deteriorating humanitarian conditions and the need to carry out a rapid health assessment after the recent attacks. MSF is deeply concerned by the situation and requests to all belligerents free and unhindered access to the populations in dire need of emergency assistance. MSF medical teams have been working on both sides of the border between Chad and Darfur-Sudan since 2004, providing care for populations directly affected by the conflict. In Seleia, MSF provided a range of medical services including antenatal and surgical care, with an average of 1, 500 consultations per month. In mid-December 2007, the international staff in Seleia was temporarily evacuated but had since then repeatedly requested administrative authorizations to return to the area.