UN agencies call for funds for south Chad refugees

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N'DJAMENA, Mar 13 (Reuters) United Nations aid agencies urgently need at least 4.5 million dollar to help up to 50,000 refugees from Central African Republic who have fled to Chad to escape violence and banditry, aid officials said.

''This is a typical case of a forgotten emergency here. We have 50,000 people we need to look after ... and the number is continuously increasing,'' Matthew Conway of the UN refugee agency UNHCR told Reuters in N'Djamena.

Since last year, thousands of refugees from the lawless north of Central African Republic have been streaming over the border into arid southern Chad to escape marauding armed gangs who have attacked their home villages.

They have joined 32,000 refugees who were already sheltering in UN camps in southern Chad after fleeing a 2003 coup in Central African Republic.

Conway, who recently returned from southern Chad, said the UN relief operation there suffered from ''chronic underfunding'' and he estimated unmet financing needs at at least 4.5 million dollar.

''Financially, we are already very stretched and with the increase in refugee numbers this situation, which is already tight, will worsen,'' said Stefano Porretti, Chad country director for the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

It is too expensive for UN agencies to airlift food to the south of landlocked Chad, he said. Supplies are being brought in by truck from Libya in the north and by road and rail from Cameroon to the south but often take up to two months to arrive.

Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest countries, has been shaken by a series of coups and mutinies over the past decade.

Former army chief Francois Bozize seized power in a 2003 coup with the aid of mercenaries from Chad. After he won elections in May last year, ending two years of military rule, many of these hired guns turned to banditry in the border area.

The refugees who recently fled from Central African Republic told aid agencies and rights groups that their villages were being attacked by bandits and armed groups -- and by government soldiers hunting the raiders.

Refugees say dozens of civilians have been killed in the violence. Hundreds and maybe thousands more villagers are still hiding in the forests of northern Central African Republic, too afraid either to cross into Chad or to return to their homes.

Conway said that unlike barren eastern Chad, which is sheltering more than 200,000 refugees from Sudan's conflict-stricken Darfur region, southern Chad at least had some fertile land available.

''We are encouraging refugees who have settled some time ago to work some of the land,'' he added.

The security situation was also better in the south than in eastern Chad, which has suffered cross-border attacks by Chadian rebels and Sudanese militias.

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