By Nick Tattersall
ABECHE, Chad, April 8 (Reuters) – Aid workers struggling to help tens of thousands of refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region along the arid Chadian border doubt whether a ceasefire between the government and rebels will hold for long or help them much.
Some 110,000 refugees — mainly Muslim black Africans — have fled over the sands into Chad in the past few months to escape marauding Arab militias and attacks by government forces.
Two rebel groups took up arms in Darfur in February last year, accusing the Khartoum government of neglecting the area and arming the horse-riding “Janjaweed” militias who loot and burn African villages.
“It’ll be the third or fourth ceasefire they’ve signed,” Simon Salimini, who coordinates food distribution to some 20,000 refugees in five World Food Programme camps in eastern Chad, said after hearing that a new truce was imminent.
“They come, they talk, they agree a ceasefire, and it lasts a few months,” he said, while radioing vehicles out in the field from his office in Abeche, some 170 km (106 miles) from the Sudanese border.
Later in the day, Sudan’s government and two rebel groups from Darfur agreed at talks in Chad’s capital N’Djamena to a 45-day ceasefire and access to the region for aid agencies, Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail told Reuters.
Many aid workers say the government in Khartoum armed the militia as part of its efforts to crush the rebel uprising, effectively giving them carte blanche to murder and rape at will in the region’s black African farming communities.
But some human rights officials have warned the militias appear to have grown more and more autonomous and aid workers in Abeche wondered whether they would respect any accord.
“Unfortunately we have seen many of these ceasefires and even though the government troops may respect it, we are not sure about the Arab militias, as it seems they are not under government control,” said Claude Vadeboncoeur, security adviser with the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in Chad.
EXPERTS TO INVESTIGATE ATROCITY REPORTS
A team of U.N. human rights experts arrived in Abeche on Thursday to probe reports of a “scorched earth” campaign by the militias in which “ethnic cleansing” was being carried out.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned on Wednesday a Rwanda-style genocide may be in the making in Sudan and said an international military force may be needed — a suggestion rejected at once by the Khartoum government.
Several Westerners working in Abeche said Arab militias had attacked refugees near the border in recent days and the Chadian army had boosted its presence there.
“There has been a big show of force by the Chadian army. They have moved tanks and troops to the border,” said one aid worker who declined to be named. “There was a big clash on Tuesday which lasted about 3-1/2 hours. There were deaths on both sides.”
Some aid workers did not believe the Khartoum government was powerless to rein in the militias.
“It’s very slow-motion ethnic cleansing,” said one. “The Sudanese will tell you they’ve lost control of the Janjaweed, because it’s convenient for them, but it’s not true.