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Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
Refugee crisis spreads to Sudan

By regional analyst Patrick Gilkes

The Ethiopian advance into western Eritrea has sent a wave of refugees fleeing to already-vulnerable Sudan.

Military units have withdrawn from major towns, including Tesseney close to the Sudan border, as well as Haicotta on the road between Tesseney and Barentu.

Further north, the Sawa national service training centre, bombed on Thursday and Sunday, also appears to be have been largely abandoned. It is normally home to at least 10,000 trainees in addition to several hundred trainers and auxiliary staff.

Women in refugee camp
The region already had a high refugee population
Civilian populations have followed suit. Tesseney, with a population of around 20,000, has been largely abandoned; most people crossed into Sudan last week.

According to the Sudanese authorities, over 50,000 people have now crossed into Sudan's Kassala province, of whom 18,000 are soldiers.

Numbers are said to be increasing at the rate of 4,000 a day, and Sudan says numbers may rise as high as 200,000.

Figures are difficult to evaluate. By Sunday, the UNHCR estimated that there were only 25,000 in four camps set up for the new arrivals, but Sudan-based NGOs confirm that a significant number have been soldiers, now disarmed by the Sudanese authorities.

Long-term refugees

Whatever the final count, the influx poses considerable problems for Sudan, which recently finalised plans with the UNHCR and Eritrea for the voluntary repatriation of long-term Eritrean refugees in Sudan - some of whom have been there since the 1960s.

Ethiopian soldiers near Barentu
The Ethiopian advance has prompted thousands more to flee
These plans have now been put on hold, and in Asmara the government has requisitioned items the UNHCR had intended for this programme to help deal with the 500,000 people Eritrea claims have been displaced by the fighting in the last week.

With a week the Kassala State government said it had virtually exhausted its stocks of food and medicine in helping the refugees.

The UNHCR has now provided 10,000 tents as well as other supplies, including water - at least two of the camps are in a very hot and arid area with temperatures around 40C (100F) or more at this time of year. There is serious concern over the amount of shelter, food and medical facilities available. Sudan has already launched an appeal for international assistance.

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See also:

22 May 00 | Africa
Ethiopia's next move
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