Group: Thousands fleeing Libya stranded in desert

By FRANK JORDANS | May 20, 2011 | 7:44 AM EDT

GENEVA (AP) — Thousands of people who have fled fighting in Libya are stranded in a remote desert town in northern Chad, in what an international aid group warned Friday could become a humanitarian catastrophe.

The International Organization for Migration said more than 3,800 Chadians are stuck in Zouarke, a small town in Chad's arid mountaineous region near the border with Niger, after traveling for days through the extreme heat of the Sahara desert. The migrants reportedly include 310 women and children. Dozens are sick or injured and at least four people have died after drinking water from contaminated wells, IOM said.

"The situation in Zouarke could become a catastrophe," IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy told reporters in Geneva.

Thousands more Chadians — who either worked as laborers in Libya or were trying to reach Europe when the conflict broke out — are trying to get home and could swell the numbers already in Zouarke, he said.

Chauzy told The Associated Press that up to 25,000 Chadians are believe to be poised to leave the southern Libyan town of Gatroun in the coming days.

"We are already struggling to cope with less than 4,000 people in this small town in northern Chad," he said. "What will happen if more people arrive from Libya? They could be completely overwhelming the limited facilities."

IOM is urgently trying to get supplies of food, water and medicine to Zouarke, which is about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) north of Chad's capital Ndjamena, he said.