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Liberia: worrying developments

Briefing notes

Liberia: worrying developments

4 March 2003

We are extremely concerned over the fate of thousands of people who have been forced to flee fighting in eastern Liberia around the village of Toe Town. UNHCR staff in the region report that more than 2,500 Ivorians and other nationals have been forced to flee a UNHCR transit camp in the town following new fighting in Liberia's Grand Geddeh district. There are also reports that some 8,000 residents have fled Toe Town as well.

UNHCR is also extremely concerned about the safety of humanitarian workers in the region.

The latest round of fighting, which erupted in Toe Town on Friday evening, allegedly involved some Liberian mercenaries who reportedly entered from Côte d'Ivoire. The Liberian Defence Minister said the rebel group, LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy), was responsible for the attack. Liberian officials said they were supported by Ivorian fighters.

UNHCR set up the Toe Town transit centre in December for some 2,500 people of mixed nationalities fleeing the conflict in neighbouring western Côte d'Ivoire. Now, once again, these people have fled for their lives. Some are apparently trying to reach Zwedru, about 80 km to the south, where we have an office and another transit centre. Zwedru itself already hosts about 8,000 refugees and other West Africans in the UNHCR - run transit centre.

A UNHCR staff member in the region said a few residents from Toe Town and some Ivorian refugees arrived in Zwedru over the weekend. They said the town was partly burned and deserted, with bodies lying in the streets. As of this morning, we still have no information on the state of our Toe Town transit centre.

Thousands of local residents also fled the town, many reportedly into the surrounding forests. The Liberian government sent reinforcements over the weekend to regain control of the area. Yesterday, government forces said they controlled the town, but the highway and surrounding areas were reportedly still insecure.

Our representative in Liberia, Mr. Moses Okello, described the situation as very serious, not only for Liberia but also for UNHCR's operations in the entire region. UNHCR has assisted close to 100,000 people who have fled the Ivorian conflict to Liberia since mid - November, but now even that sanctuary is coming under attack. Since fighting spread to western Côte d'Ivoire last November, UNHCR in eastern Liberia has assisted close to 40,000 Ivorians and 45,000 Liberian refugees previously living in Côte d'Ivoire. UNHCR has also helped some 13,000 third - country nationals, mainly from Burkina Faso and Mali, who were living in Côte d'Ivoire and had crossed the border into Liberia for safety.

We set up four transit centres along the borders and were in the process of establishing more permanent camps where Ivorian refugees, many of whom are presently staying in volatile border villages, could be hosted.

These extremely worrisome developments come as fighting rages in western Liberia as well, where LURD rebels have been active in parts of Lofa, Gbarpolu, Bomi and Grand Cape Mount counties. The fighting in the west has driven 7,000 Liberians into neighbouring Sierra Leone since early February. Fighting has also been getting increasingly close to Monrovia in recent weeks.