Thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees flee renewed fighting in Liberia
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, Feb 11 (UNHCR) - With fighting continuing over the weekend between Liberian government troops and rebel forces near the capital of Monrovia, thousands of frightened Sierra Leonean refugees fled towards their country's border amid reports that more were on the way.
Some 5,000 panicked refugees arrived in the border town of Jendema, where they were joined by Liberians fleeing their country as rebels belonging to Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy threatened to enter the capital and overthrow the government of President Charles Taylor.
Last week, the rebels launched an offensive on the town of Klay Junction, some 35 kilometres from Monrovia. It was the closest the fighting has come to the capital since the seven-year civil war that killed some 200,000 people ended in 1997. President Taylor declared a state of emergency last week, and his government blamed a United Nations embargo for the renewed fighting.
The Security Council tightened the embargo last May in an effort to stop the Liberian government from providing Sierra Leonean rebels with guns in exchange for gems that allowed the rebels to wage a vicious ten-year war in that West African country.
By mid-morning Monday, UNHCR staff in Jendema had registered some 3,000 Liberian refugees and more than 2,000 Sierra Leonean returnees. Some of the Liberian refugees have gone into nearby villages on the Sierra Leone side of the border, others are awaiting transportation to the Jimmi Bargbo refugee camp some 350 kilometres away.
Many of the Sierra Leoneans are from the Sinje refugee camps in Liberia, just 20 kilometres from the scene of the latest fighting. They have requested assistance from the refugee agency in returning to their home villages in Kailahun in north-east Sierra Leone. Refugees from villages close to Jendema made their own way back.
UNHCR sent ten trucks to Jendema to aid the transfer of the Liberian refugees from the border town and has requested additional trucks to transfer the returnees to their home areas from the U.N. Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone. The additional transfers are likely to begin Tuesday.
UNHCR staff at the border said Monday they could hear shelling from the Liberian side of the border. Some of the Sierra Leonean returnees told UNHCR that they fled the camps, which house some 15,000 refugees, out of fear of harassment by rebels.
The majority of people arriving in Sierra Leone are said to be in generally good physical condition. Many fled with some of their belongings, including food supplies. But refugee agency officials have received reports of children being separated from their families.
Meanwhile, agency officials in Monrovia remain concerned about the situation of the Sierra Leonean refugees in the Sinje camps. The two camps were cut off by the fighting in Klay Junction, located halfway between Monrovia and Sinje.