GENEVA (Reuters) - Up to 400 people were killed in Chad in a recent attack survivors say was carried out by Sudanese and local Janjaweed militia aided by Chadian rebels, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday.
Chadian authorities had estimated last week that at least 65 people died in the early morning attacks on March 31 on two villages in eastern Chad, Tiero and Marena, home to some 8,000.
The new estimated toll followed a visit to the remote area on Sunday by a group of U.N. agencies which described the scene there as “apocalyptic,” UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said.
“Estimates of the number of dead have increased substantially and now range between 200 and 400. Because most of the dead were buried where their bodies were found — often in common graves owing to their numbers — we may never know their exact number,” he told a briefing.
Survivors identified the attackers as a coalition of well-armed Janjaweed militia “assisted by Chad rebels equipped with heavy weapons and vehicles”, he said. It would be one of the most violent single incidents so far recorded on the volatile Chadian-Sudanese border.
UNHCR spokeswoman Helene Caux said that survivors had reported recognising some of the Janjaweed as living in Arab settlements around their villages, while others appeared to have crossed the border from Sudan.
The U.N. team found decomposing bodies near the villages, including that of a 30-year-old father of eight. Hundreds of homes had been burned to the ground, and there was an “overwhelming stench” from rotting carcasses of dead animals.
“There were many indications that people had little or no time to flee, given that many essential household goods, food and domestic animals were left behind,” Redmond said.
An eight-year-old boy told the U.N. team that he had dropped to the ground to “escape bullets that came like rainfall” as he fled Tiero. A girl his age had died of a gunshot wound to the head as she got up to run, he said.
“The number of survivors who have provided us with heartbreaking testimony such as this is overwhelming. It paints a portrait perhaps better described as a massacre than an attack,” Redmond told Reuters.
Khartoum, which human rights officials accuse of supporting the Janjaweed, denies any responsibility for the deadly raids.
The number of wounded in the raids stood at about 80, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Many of those who survived the initial attack, especially elderly and young children, had died in subsequent days from exhaustion and dehydration, often while fleeing, it said.
Some 9,000 Chadians — mainly women and children — from the surrounding area had fled after the attacks, joining another 9,000 compatriots who had fled earlier raids, the agency said.
“The whereabouts of many men remain unknown,” Redmond said. “This is really a nightmarish situation that is occurring in southeastern Chad.”
The villages are located in the Wadi-Fira region of Chad’s eastern border with Sudan. Chad has identified the raiders, some mounted on camels and horses, as Sudanese Janjaweed militia.
The raids appear to be another spillover of violence from Sudan’s conflict-torn Darfur region, where well over 200,000 people have been killed since 2003 in a war between rebels and Sudanese government forces and their allied militias.