Home | News    Wednesday 7 July 2004

INTERVIEW-Darfur causes Chad political, economic trials

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By Opheera McDoom

ADDIS ABABA, July 7 (Reuters) - Chad is suffering from political and economic problems because of the crisis in the Darfur region of neighbouring Sudan, its Foreign Minister Nagoum Yamassoum said on Wednesday.

The government in N’Djamena has come under political pressure from both sides in the conflict, its economy is struggling to meet costs created by refugees and imports to the landlocked state have been hampered, he said.

Fighting in neighbouring Sudan’s remote western Darfur area has uprooted more than one million people, with about 200,000 refugees camped across the border in Chad. The United Nations has called it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Rebels accuse Sudan’s government of arming Arab militias, known as Janajweed, to loot and burn African villages in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, a charge Khartoum denies.

"Of course there are political effects," Yamassoum told Reuters and Africa No 1 radio. "There are some of our compatriots who think that we should support the rebels rather than be neutral mediators, so there’s also lots of pressure."

The minister spoke after a meeting between the Sudanese and Chadian presidents to discuss reviving political talks on Darfur at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

Yamassoum said Chadian President Idriss Deby tried to convince Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir talks were vital and that the government had to concede to some of the rebel demands.

"If there is one thing we want from the Sudanese government it is to disarm and neutralise the militias," he said.

Deby and Bashir are scheduled to meet in Darfur on Saturday to discuss the conflict, Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said.

Chad mediated in talks which led to a shaky ceasefire in April but further talks, scheduled to start on July 15, have been moved to Ethiopia’s capital, after some rebel groups were reluctant to return to N’Djamena.

SUSPECTED BY BOTH SIDES

"It was a constant position of one of the factions of the (rebel) Justice and Equality Movement that the Chadian government is not neutral and is very allied to the Sudanese government," Yamassoum said.

But the Sudanese government was equally suspicious of Chad’s contacts with the rebels, he added. "If we are suspected by both sides then to some extent we are on a middle ground."

Yamassoum said Chad was finding it difficult to fund the refugees and to compensate those hosting them in the east of the country.

Despite having some oil, Chad ranks among the 15 least developed countries in the world, according to U.N. statistics.

"Economic activity has been extinguished in the border region because (the eastern town of) Abeche was a very important entry point for our imports from the Near and Middle East," he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan pledged to appeal for funds for food, medicine and schooling for the Darfur refugees and Chadians who have been hosting them, after a visit to Sudan and Chad last week.

There is concern the conflict could spread to Chad, home to some of the same ethnic groups living in Darfur. Chad’s President Deby is of the African Zaghawa tribe, which makes up part of the rebel movement.

Yamassoum said Chad’s army had dealt with incursions by the militias into its territory, but said there was no chance the country would be dragged into the conflict.

"Of course there are people who are looking to engage us in this conflict, but we are mediators and we will not enter the conflict," he said.

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