The already difficult humanitarian situation in the Darfur region of Sudan has worsened further as a result of new fighting and increased banditry, U.N. aid agencies said Friday.
The U.N. refugee agency said staff are unable to reach thousands of people who have fled across the border to Chad because of aerial bombardment on the Sudanese side.
The World Food Program said dozens of its trucks have been stolen at gunpoint in Darfur since the beginning of the year, endangering the delivery of humanitarian aid on which millions in the country depend.
Sudanese forces began bombing areas in West Darfur earlier this month in a renewed attempt to defeat rebel groups who have been fighting the government for over four years. The conflict is estimated to have cost some 200,000 lives and displaced at least 2.5 million people so far.
A joint mission by several U.N. agencies that visited the town of Sirba in West Darfur on Thursday found that 40 percent of the buildings in the town had been burned to the ground by recent fighting.
Serge Male, resident coordinator for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Chad, said his staff tried on Friday to reach the border area where newly arrived refugees from Darfur have been gathering.
The aid workers, who evacuated the area Monday for safety reasons, turned back because they could hear bombs exploding on the other side of the border.
"The bombing is taking place so close that it's dangerous to go there, even on the Chadian side of the border," Male told The Associated Press by telephone from the capital N'Djamena.
"We have seen helicopters, and we think they were the ones doing these things," he said.
Refugees stream into Chad
UNHCR estimates that some 10,000 refugees from Darfur have arrived in Chad since bombing began Feb. 8, but Male said the precise number was difficult to determine because people were crossing back and forth, depending on the security situation on the day.
A team of local staff is providing minimum medical care to wounded Darfurians in the border town of Birak, he said, but about 20 to 30 people need to be transported to a clinic further inside Chad. The Chadian government has resisted such a move because of concerns that refugees are fomenting unrest in the country, which itself is in the middle of a simmering civil war.
Male said aid agencies were hoping that a cease-fire in Darfur might stabilize the situation and give them a window of opportunity to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaced people on both sides of the border.
For now, he said, refugees on the Chadian side are managing to get by with supplies they brought over and generous help from the local population.
But the situation could change within weeks if aid supplies do not resume, Male said.
Darfur has been the site of the most expensive and complex humanitarian operation since the conflict there began in 2003.
Earlier this year the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs asked for $930 million to respond to the crisis, a large part of which goes toward supplying millions of people with food.
Christiane Berthiaume, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program in Geneva, said Friday that 30 aid trucks have been stolen at gunpoint since the beginning of the year, and 18 local drivers have been kidnapped. Four trucks and their drivers have since been released.
Contractors employed by the agency in Darfur are used to working in difficult conditions, "but now it's really getting very bad," she said.
The agency said its staff — like those of other organizations — only travel outside major cities by helicopter for safety reasons, at a cost of some $1.9 million a month.