Liberian refugees return home from Côte d'Ivoire
Editor's note: We mistakenly identified the rebels in and around Zwedru as belonging to LURD when in fact they belong to MODEL. The correction has been made in the text below.
ZWEDRU, Liberia, Sept 26 (UNHCR) - Thousands of Liberian refugees fearing political uncertainty in Côte d'Ivoire have begun drifting back into the relatively peaceful eastern region of Liberia.
An inter-agency mission reported Thursday after a four-day visit to the Zwedru area in the north-eastern Grand Gedeh county that small groups of Liberian returnees carrying belongings were on the road from Côte d'Ivoire.
The returnees said they were from the same tribe as the rebels of the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). They also said they felt no longer welcome in Côte d'Ivoire and feared political instability in the country following a failed coup a year ago.
Around 3,000 to 4,000 returnees were reported in Zwedru, which now has 13,000 residents from a pre-war population of 27,000. There were also 200 Ivorian refugees in the town. Some of these Ivorians told the visiting team they preferred to remain in the Zwedru area while the political situation remained unsettled their country.
Earlier this year, there were an estimated 38,000 Ivorians, along with 15,000 immigrant workers, in Liberia. Many of the Ivorians have returned home and most of the immigrant workers from Côte d'Ivoire who had been caught in recent fighting in Liberia later proceeded to their home countries.
In Zwedru, the mission found that MODEL fighters had occupied the UNHCR office, which was intact, but it was told the office would be handed back to UNHCR when the refugee agency resumes operations in the area.
Overall, UNHCR is optimistic about the situation in Liberia, describing it as "promising but fragile" after 14 years of continual civil strife. The agency expects the situation to improve further once the 15,000 peacekeepers begin deploying in mid-October, replacing the 3,500-strong West African force sent last month.
Following the departure of former Liberian President Charles Taylor into exile in Nigeria last month, the government and rebel groups signed an agreement setting up a transitional government that would supervise elections in two years. The situation has been generally calm since, although fighting has broken out in the central counties of Bong and Nimba over the past two weeks, forcing 6,000 Liberians into Guinea.
Moses Okello, UNHCR's representative in Liberia, said government militias loyal to the ousted leader were battling fighters of MODEL and another armed group called the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).
"I think this is the last place where there will be fighting but it will eventually die down," Okello said. He said UNHCR, other UN agencies and relief organisations were providing emergency assistance to camps for internally displaced people, or IDPs. The UN refugee agency was handing out plastic sheeting, blankets, kitchen sets, jerry cans and soap in an attempt to decongest the IDP camps. The recent turmoil in Liberia has uprooted 500,000 Liberians internally.
UNHCR is also making arrangements for the repatriation of the 14,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia.
In Guinea, staff of the refugee agency today began transporting 600 of the newly arrived Liberians into refugee camps inland. They were mostly women and children who had fled in haste and had nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Other arrivals stayed only briefly along the Guinean border. They had left Liberia's Lofa county because they feared the spread of ethnic reprisals after the departure of government militias from the area. They went back to Lofa after the rumours dissipated.
The arrivals in Guinea said Taylor loyalists were harassing residents, looting homes and raping women. There were also reports of summary executions. Similar reports were received earlier by UN security staff from Liberians who fled Bong and Nimba counties. Guinea hosts 133,000 of the 315,000 Liberian refugees in West Africa.