French aid flights to help Sudanese refugees in Chad

France is to begin flying humanitarian supplies into eastern Chad on Sunday to help tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees and Chadians displaced by violence in Darfur, an army spokesperson said on Friday.

France will use three Transall transport planes to fly humanitarian supplies from Abeche, a major town in eastern Chad, to Goz Beida, a border village where 30 000 to 40 000 Sudanese refugees and Chadians uprooted by violence are living in refugee camps, said Commander Christophe Prazuck.

The humanitarian air bridge will likely only function for several weeks, Prazuck said by telephone. ”This is urgent because the rainy season starts in three weeks,” he said. The rains will make it difficult to access roads and airport runways that have limited capacity.

The runways can handle only up to three Transalls, which could make a total of four rotations a day between Abeche and Goz Beida, Prazuck said. The operation is to get under way on Sunday, he said.

France has 1 000 soldiers stationed in Chad, protecting aid workers and providing communication and logistical support to the Chadian army.

France will work in collaboration with humanitarian agencies to determine the type and amount of supplies needed, said Prazuck, who provided no figures. ”We are putting in the means to respond rapidly,” he said.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the conflict-ridden Darfur region of Sudan into neighbouring Chad.

More than 200 000 people have been killed and 2,5-million made refugees in Darfur since 2003, when ethnically African rebels rose up against the Arab-dominated central government. Khartoum is accused of retaliating by backing Janjaweed militias who are preying on civilians. The Sudanese government denies the charge.

The French announcement follows a trip to the region by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a co-founder of the international aid group Médecins sans Frontières. He visited Chad and Sudan on the five-day trip that ended on Monday.

Kouchner had proposed a ”humanitarian corridor” to get aid to Darfur from eastern Chad. However, aid groups said the plan was too risky. He then appeared to back off the proposal.

In Sudan, Kouchner added his voice to those pressing President Omar al-Bashir to commit to a joint United Nations and African mission in the war-torn region. Sudan accepted the so-called hybrid force on Tuesday after assurances it will not be open-ended and Sudan will remain in control of its borders.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, elected last month, has made Darfur a priority. Paris hopes to convene a conference on Darfur on June 25 among a new ”contact group” that would include representatives of Group of Eight members and China and South Africa. — Sapa-AP

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