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Liberia: UNHCR gravely concerned over fate of displaced

Briefing notes

Liberia: UNHCR gravely concerned over fate of displaced

22 July 2003

Amid reports of shelling and heavy loss of life, UNHCR is gravely concerned over the horrific situation in Liberia and the fate of tens of thousands of displaced people and refugees now jamming Monrovia.

Many terrified people are again seeking refuge in the UNHCR compound in the city's Mamba Point district, including hundreds of Sierra Leonean refugees who have been awaiting evacuation in our emergency sealift that began on July 4. Unfortunately, the ship we've been using in that operation has had to return empty to Freetown, Sierra Leone, because it was unable to dock safely in Monrovia.

The MV Overbeck had been scheduled to take another 300 refugees home to Sierra Leone on Sunday, but was forced by the latest fighting to wait offshore in the Atlantic. Yesterday, the ship radioed that it had developed problems related to stormy weather conditions and was then sent back to Freetown, where it will remain on standby. As soon as the security situation allows, it will return to Monrovia to continue the emergency evacuation.

So far, the Overbeck has evacuated 1,250 Sierra Leonean refugees in four voyages, and thousands more are waiting to get out of the war-torn capital. The latest, aborted mission was to have been the fifth, but the UNHCR operation was interrupted by a resumption in fighting on Friday following a four-week lull.

In all, some 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees had been living in and around Monrovia in four main camps prior to the latest fighting. We have lost contact with many of them.

The High Commissioner supports the Secretary-General's call for an immediate end to hostilities. As you may recall, the High Commissioner has been urging the rapid deployment of an international peacekeeping force since he visited Liberia in mid-May.

The first rebel shells in this latest round of fighting hit areas just outside Monrovia on Friday as UNHCR staff were winding up the registration of hundreds of Sierra Leonean refugees in Samukai camp, 13 km from the city. The would-be returnees had been registered ahead of their scheduled departure on Sunday on the Overbeck.

UNHCR staff had also been preparing to begin evacuation registration in Banjor camp, but we now understand that camp has been overrun by the rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). On Saturday, as the fighting continued, anxious refugees in Banjor made frantic calls to UNHCR staff to find out what to do about their pending evacuation. Some had already packed their belongings, ready to depart. We are not sure where they are now. Another camp, VOA, has been deserted for weeks.

Speaking from his home on the outskirts of Monrovia on Monday afternoon, one of our staff reported that he and his family were now living behind rebel lines. He described the situation there as "calm but tense," with fighting continuing along the main highway into Monrovia. He said his community had formed a neighbourhood watch to prevent looting.