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Wednesday, 26 January, 2000, 13:58 GMT
Angolan refugees starving in Zambia

Refugees in aircraft Some refugees have been airlifted to safer areas

By Lusaka correspondent Ishbel Matheson

The head of the United Nations refugee agency, Sadako Ogata, has said that 7,500 Angolan refugees trapped in the far south-west of Zambia are starving and in difficult circumstances.

Aid agencies are trying to mount a relief operation to ease their plight but this is a sensitive issue for the Zambian government.

A few weeks ago thousands of refugees from Angola fled across the border at Sinjembela following fierce fighting between Unita rebels and Angolan government forces.

Sinjembela is in the far south-west of the country, close to the border with Namibia.

Communications are extremely difficult with this part of the country and so far only limited relief supplies have been delivered.

Food delayed

The UNHCR says that 60 tonnes of food bound for Sinjembela is stuck at Senanga, more than 80km (50 miles) away, due to poor road conditions.

Sadako Ogata Sadako Ogata: Concerns remain despite airlift
Mrs Ogata on Monday visited some 5,000 refugees in Kalabo, more than 300km (180 miles) north of Sinjembela, who were being moved from floods along the Zambezi river.

"The humanitarian situation in Kalabo has improved but concerns remain about the welfare of refugees in Sinjembela," Mrs Ogata said.

Unita involvement

However, this is not a straightforward humanitarian issue.

The refugees in Sinjembela are camped only 4km from the border. There is some suggestion that the majority of them are the families of Unita rebels.

According to a confidential report seen by the BBC, it is alleged that Unita soldiers are feeding their families by crossing the border at night.

This is clearly an extremely sensitive issue for the Zambian government.

Angola has long complained that elements within Zambia have been covertly supporting Unita, despite the UN sanctions.

It is a claim that the government of President Frederick Chiluba has denied.

Zambia also has a tradition of offering sanctuary to those fleeing the civil war in Angola, whether they are escaping from Unita or from government forces.

Whatever the identity of these refugees, it is clear that as soon as they are moved from the border area they are going to require significant amounts of food to prevent starvation.

Aid organisations are now investigating the feasibility of mounting such an operation.

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See also:
23 Jan 00 |  Africa
Angolan refugees airlift resumes
09 Jan 00 |  Africa
Zambia orders Angolan border alert
07 Jan 00 |  Africa
Tensions on Angola-Zambia border
24 Dec 99 |  Africa
Angolans close in on Unita base

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