Liberia: third boat in Sierra Leone returns
A total of 313 Sierra Leonean refugees sailed from Monrovia, Liberia, for their homeland yesterday, the third such group to go back to Sierra Leone in a twice-weekly UNHCR sealift that began on July 20. The refugees, accompanied by a UNHCR staff member and a medical team, are expected to arrive in Freetown, Sierra Leone, later today. They bring to more than 900 the number of Sierra Leonean refugees to have returned in the sealift.
The sea operation began after the land route from northern Liberia to Sierra Leone was severed by fighting. Overland repatriation from Liberia was first started in mid-February this year and led to the repatriation of 10,848 Sierra Leoneans by April, when the movement was suspended - first because of the electoral period in Sierra Leone, and then because of renewed fighting between rebel and government forces.
Most of the returnees are former refugees from Sinje camp in Liberia. They fled to Monrovia after a rebel attack on the camp on June 20. More than 4,500 Sierra Leoneans have so far registered in Monrovia for repatriation by ship.
Since September 2000, UNHCR has facilitated the return of over 100,000 Sierra Leoneans from Guinea and Liberia. Sierra Leone has also received an influx of more than 50,000 Liberian refugees since the beginning of this year. Refugees and foot returnees are entering Sierra Leone in the Zimmi and Kailahun areas at a rate of about 1,000 per week. They are also arriving in small numbers through unofficial entry points. Many report harassment by armed elements on the Liberian side of the border, included forced labour. More than 50,000 Sierra Leonean refugees are believed to remain in Liberia, half of them in camps around Monrovia.
The June 20 rebel attack on the Sinje refugee camp sent all of its estimated 24,000 residents (11,000 refugees and 13,000 displaced Liberians) fleeing for safety towards the border or trying to reach the Liberian capital. The departing rebels also abducted five NGO nurses and we are still waiting for their release. On July 20, the Liberian LURD (Liberians United For Reconciliation and Democracy) rebel commanders who are holding the five nurses contacted the NGO's (MERCI) head office in Monrovia by radio. MERCI was able to speak to one of the nurses, but there has been no contact with the nurses since then. UNHCR and MERCI are making every effort to obtain their release.