UNHCR begins repatriating Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia following outbreak of fighting
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, Feb. 14 (UNHCR) - The first group of Sierra Leonean refugees repatriated by UNHCR arrived in their homeland Wednesday night after a seven-hour trip from camps near the Liberian capital of Monrovia, refugee agency officials said Thursday.
The 243 returnees spent the night in the Sierra Leone border town of Jendema before continuing their journey to the Blama Way station near Kenema in central Sierra Leone, where they will receive a two-month supply of food, kitchen sets, blankets and other materials.
From Kenema the former refugees will either make their own way home or be provided with transportation by aid agencies. UNHCR said 6,218 refugees originally registered for repatriation from six camps in Liberia, but expects to return as many as 15,000 people during the coming weeks.
The 11-truck convoy marked the first time that UNHCR has transported any of the more than 30,000 Sierra Leoneans in Liberia back to their country, which officially ended a vicious seven-year civil war only last month following the disarmament of combatants by a United Nations peacekeeping force.
The Sierra Leoneans rushed to register for the trip back home following a flare-up in the fighting last weekend between troops loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor and rebels belonging to Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. The rebels control portions of the gold- and diamond-rich northern areas of the West African country.
Last weekend's guerrilla attack at Klay Junction, just 35 kilometres from Monrovia, drove out thousands of Sierra Leoneans from nearby refugee camps as well as Liberians from the capital. Some 3,000 Liberians and 2,000 Sierra Leonean returnees arrived spontaneously at the border town of Jendema earlier this week following the outbreak of fighting. The figure, however, has dropped sharply as fighting eased, with only 100 persons arriving in the town Wednesday, according to police.
Saying that the fighting had forced thousands of innocent civilians to flee their homes, the Organisation for African Unity called on the warring factions to stop the fighting, but reports indicated that many people continued to flee their homes on Thursday despite a significant drop in the level of combat.
Taylor was elected president in 1997 after a seven-year civil war that left some 200,000 people dead.