updated 2/28/2006 9:17:11 AM ET 2006-02-28T14:17:11

Fighting between soldiers and rebels in eastern Chad is sending civilians fleeing across the border into Sudan’s Darfur, site of one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts over the last three years, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday.

Human rights groups have said Chadians are also targeted by cross-border attacks by Sudanese militia. The refugees fleeing the fighting in Chad is “further evidence of the spreading insecurity that now straddles this increasingly insecure region,” UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters.

Most of the Chadians in Sudan are women and children.

Already host to Darfur refugees
Chad hosts about 300,000 refugees who fled the conflict between rebels and Sudanese government forces and militias in Darfur. Sudan has accused Chad of harboring Darfur rebels, who have tribal ties across the border, while Chad has said Sudan backs Chadian insurgents.

“You may have thought the terrible situation in Darfur couldn’t get worse, but it has,” Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said in an early February statement. “Sudan’s policy of arming militias and letting them loose is spilling over the border, and civilians have no protection from their attacks, in Darfur or in Chad.”

Human Rights Watch said Chadian and Sudanese militias based in Darfur were conducting deadly and almost daily raids into Chad, displacing tens of thousands of Chadians. Human Rights Watch accused ethnic Arab militiamen of targeting mainly non-Arab Chadians.

At their summit in January, African leaders took the unusual step of passing over Sudan to take over the group’s rotating chairmanship because of concerns over Darfur, Sudan’s relations with Chad and its human rights record.

Deal reached, but stalled
In early February, Sudan and Chad signed a Libya-brokered accord pledging to deny refuge to each other’s rebel groups and to normalize diplomatic relations. But little progress has been made since in easing tensions. African Union-mediated talks aimed at ending the Darfur fighting also have stalled.

Last year, scores of defectors from the Chadian army joined a number of Chadian rebel groups based in the area bordering Darfur. In December, Chad’s army repulsed two main rebel groups that tried to take the eastern Chad town of Adre.

UNHCR’s Pagonis said Chadians fleeing the Adre region have cited that attack and further fighting between rebels and Chadian government troops over the last two months as the reason they left.

An undetermined number of Chadians has joined a group of at least 8,000 people gathered around the Darfur border villages of Galu and Azaza, she said, adding “a small number of new arrivals are still reported daily” at makeshift settlements in the area. Others are believed to have fled to relatives living in the Galu area.

UNHCR is trying to determine which people returning to Sudan were Chadians and if they should be considered asylum seekers, Pagonis said.

Huge toll continues to mount
At least 180,000 people have died in Darfur and some two million have been displaced since decades of tribal clashes over land and water erupted into large-scale violence in early 2003.

The Sudanese government is accused of using ethnic Arab militias in a scorched earth policy against Darfur rebels, some of whom draw support from ethnic African villages.

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