Ethnic clashes along Chad's border with Sudan's Darfur region may have left as many as 200 people dead and nine villages looted, the UN refugee agency reported on Thursday.
The UN sent a team to eastern Chad to investigate reports of armed men on horseback attacking, looting and burning the villages. Similar atrocities have been reported in Darfur, where Arab-African tension has been heightened by a three-year insurgency.
UNHCR quoted residents in the region as saying the fighting started on Saturday. Chad's government spokesman, Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor, had referred to what appears to be the same unrest in a statement late on Tuesday, but said only that it left "numerous victims."
That followed a report of violence from Chadian government officials who said a small clash between ethnic Arabs and ethnic Africans in another eastern region escalated into a large-scale attack in which Arabs killed 128 Africans on Oct. 31. Chadian government officials say Darfur's ethnic violence is spilling across the border.
UNHCR worker Helene Caux, who on Wednesday and Thursday toured villages affected by the latest violence, said that while the tactics and ethnic element mirrored violence in Darfur, the attackers and victims were all Chadians. She said survivors told her they recognized former neighbors among the ethnic Arab attackers, and said they hurled racial insults.
Survivors "told us the conflict has been imported from Darfur," Caux said by telephone from eastern Chad. "The Chad-Sudan border is a very volatile area, and what happens in Darfur impacts on eastern Chad."
Tribes straddle the border in the region, so ethnic animosity might well cross the border.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, called for urgent action in a statement released in Geneva.
"We are deeply alarmed at the brutality in eastern Chad, which is already struggling to cope with more than 218,000 Sudanese refugees from neighboring Darfur," Guterres said. "We have warned for months that the Darfur conflict threatens to destabilize the entire region and we support calls for an international presence in eastern Chad."
Arabs, among them slave traders, first reached sub-Saharan Africa more than a century ago. Intermarriage and the embrace of Islam by many Africans have blurred identities, but an Arab-African divide persists. It is exacerbated by a lack of resources in the region, pitting communities against each other in a competition for water and land.
In Darfur, ethnic African tribes accusing the central government of neglect launched a rebellion three years ago, following years of low-level tribal clashes. The government is accused of responding by unleashing ethnic Arab tribal militias who have been linked to atrocities.
More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced since fighting began in Darfur in early 2003.
Fears are mounting that Darfur's escalating violence is spreading. Tensions have been further heightened because Chad accuses Sudan of supporting Chadian rebels and Sudan makes a similar accusation against Chad.