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Africa Fact Sheet - West Africa

Africa Fact Sheet - West Africa

1 May 2000

Sierra Leone again fell into chaos on 2 May 2000 when the newly-deployed UNAMSIL peacekeepers were severely attacked by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Foday Sankoh. At least four U.N. soldiers were killed and more than 350 of them disarmed and detained.

8,000 UNAMSIL peacekeepers had been deployed to implement the Lomé peace agreement signed in July 1999. It was supposed to address the "security vacuum" left by the departing ECOMOG soldiers. U.N. peacekeeping troops arrived in December last year and started to assist the government in carrying out the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programme and ensure the free movement of humanitarian staff. A large number of pro-government militiamen had surrendered their weapons but not the rebels of the RUF.

The role of UNHCR in Sierra Leone was to prepare the repatriation of nearly 500,000 Sierra Leonean refugees from Guinea and Liberia. A UNHCR office had been re-opened in Kenema on 1 April and an assessment mission recently visited the north-western area of Kambia, held by RUF rebels, without encountering security problems.

Following this major set back, the majority of the UNHCR staff was evacuated and only two international staff will remain in Freetown.

No doubt the new developments will have a negative impact on the UNHCR repatriation plan whereby 77,000 Sierra Leonean refugees from Guinea were expected to return this year and another 150,000 next year.

In neighbouring Liberia, the situation remains unstable, especially in northern Lofa County. Recurrent insecurity and human rights violations have provoked scepticism from the donor community, leading to continued funding problems for aid organizations working in refugee return areas.

To improve the situation in Lofa County, which is also the main destination for returnees, UNHCR has teamed with UNDP and the World Bank on a community-based project which aims at strengthening security and civil administration.

In August of last year, Guinean authorities closed their border with Liberia following an armed attack on the Lofa town of Kolahun. Despite lingering tension and another shooting incident earlier this year, the border between Liberia and Guinea was finally reopened in March, raising hopes for thousands of Liberian refugees who had registered to repatriate but who have been forced to wait to go home. Guinean officials indicated that the border has been reopened for the sole purpose of repatriation.

Seizing the momentum, UNHCR has re-launched its repatriation exercise from Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. 24,000 Liberians have already registered for voluntary repatriation in Guinea while on 20 April a first convoy of 309 Liberian returnees left Danané in Côte d'Ivoire.

By the end of 1999, UNHCR had helped 130,000 Liberian refugees to repatriate since the programme began in 1997. An estimated 215,000 persons had gone home on their own during the same period. Although the repatriation was due to be completed by the end of 1999, 107,000 Liberians are still living as refugees in Guinea and 100,000 in Côte d'Ivoire. A sensitization campaign aimed at boosting the voluntary repatriation was launched in April of this year by UNHCR in the camps of Nzérékoré in Guinea. The goal of the campaign is to reassure refugees of UNHCR's continued assistance in facilitating return to their country of origin.

Following the signing of a repatriation plan with the authorities of Chad in N'Djamena, UNHCR started in early May, to repatriate some 2,040 Chadian refugees currently living in northern Cameroon. Plans are also being drawn to repatriate 2,000 Chadian refugees living in the Central African Republic. However, armed conflict in the northern Tibesti region between the national army and a consolidated front of rebel groups has raised serious concerns regarding the political stability of the country. In 1999, Gabon received an influx of over 12,000 refugees fleeing the civil war in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville). Due to a successful mediation by the President of Gabon, Omar Bongo, a cease-fire was signed in December 1999 and Congolese refugees in Gabon should be able to repatriate soon. Half of the 810,000 persons displaced inside the Republic of Congo had begun moving home by the end of April 2000. To respond to the situation, UNHCR has increased its presence in Gabon with the opening of a Branch Office in Libreville and two field offices in the southern border area. While a small number of refugees started to return home spontaneously, UNHCR field staff also reported the recent arrival of ex-militia troops and unaccompanied minors.