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Sudan clashes send tens of thousands of children into flight

Clashes between ethnic minority rebels and troops in Jebel Marra have forced 82,727 civilians to seek shelter, 60 percent of them children
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sortoni, in Sudan's North Darfur state, who fled their homes following ongoing clashes in the Jebel Marra area on 8 February 2016 (AFP/HO/UNAMID)

KHARTOUM - Tens of thousands of children fleeing clashes in the Jebel Marra mountains of Sudan's conflict-torn Darfur have faced traumatic escapes, the United Nations children's agency UNICEF told AFP on Thursday.

In the isolated area's biggest civilian displacement in a decade, clashes between ethnic minority rebels and troops in Jebel Marra that erupted on January 15 have forced 82,727 civilians to seek shelter, 60 percent of them children, according to UN estimates.

"Children who already have very little are once again traumatised with what seems to be an endless, endless war," said Geert Cappelaere, head of UNICEF in Sudan.

Jebel Marra sits at the heart of the Darfur region and is a stronghold of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army commanded by Abdulwahid Nur (SLA-AW).

The area has seen heavy fighting before in previous years but had been calm before mid-January when fighting erupted involving ground troops and aerial bombardments.

Cappelaere told of the gruelling flight of civilians - particularly children.

They have faced "the fear of being attacked, of being hit by bullets, hit by fighting, the fear of losing family members on the road," he said.

"It's an awful journey of trauma they have gone through, one they cannot understand," said Cappelaere.

"Add to that a journey with limited access to water - to drinking water - poor sanitation, children who had to leave school, children who are sick can't be treated, who had to be carried for days, hoping they will end up in a place where they have some minimum assistance."

Nearly 60,000 civilians fleeing the violence have taken shelter around a base at Sortoni in North Darfur belonging to the UN-African Union mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

Others have sought refuge at other existing camps for the displaced near Tawila and Kabkabiya.

"Those who end up in Sortoni, in Kabkabiya and Tawila, these are the lucky ones. Once they are in the camp ... we are able to provide them some assistance," said Cappelaere.

But he said there have already been reports of a measles outbreak at Tawila.

It is thought many fleeing the fighting have escaped further into the Jebel Marra area, where UN agencies and NGOs have been unable to access them.

UNICEF said the children displaced by the month-long bout of fighting in Jebel Marra risked missing out on education and vaccinations, adding it needed more funding to support them.

More than 300,000 people have been killed in the Darfur conflict since 2003 and there are some 2.5 million people living there who have fled their homes, the UN says.

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