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UNHCR relief work in Liberia gathers momentum despite security problems

UNHCR relief work in Liberia gathers momentum despite security problems

The UN refugee agency's emergency staff and relief supplies have arrived in the Liberian capital. But logistical problems and fear of looting and marauding militia have slowed efforts to mount a significant relief operation.
15 August 2003
Sierra Leonean refugees at the Monrovia port before a sea repatriation in July. The return voyage is set to resume in mid-August.

MONROVIA, Liberia, August 15 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today resumed sea-lifting supplies to Liberia's capital, Monrovia, but the effort to mount a full-scale relief operation was marred by security problems and logistical difficulties.

On Friday, the UNHCR-chartered ship, MV Overbeck, docked at Monrovia harbour guarded by US marines. It brought food, blankets and mattresses for thousands of people, as well as fuel, water and other essential supplies to the war-ravaged city.

For the first time in many days, Monrovians trapped in the government-held part of the city were allowed on Friday to cross the only bridge leading to a zone formerly controlled by rebels of the LURD (Liberians United For Reconciliation and Democracy).

UNHCR emergency staff said they saw a steady stream of people pouring over the bridge in hope of finding cheaper food on the other side, after spending weeks cut off from the outside world, with little access to food and clean water. The field workers said pedestrian traffic on the bridge was so dense that vehicles that tried to reach the port area could only move at a snail's pace.

The agency's spokeswoman, Astrid van Genderen Stort, who arrived in Monrovia on Wednesday, said the mood on the streets was that of jubilation and relief after the departure of former President Charles Taylor. But she noted that continued fear of looters and marauding militia dampened the celebratory atmosphere and slowed efforts to mount a significant relief operation.

UNHCR's fleet of 29 trucks has been reduced to three, with the rest of the vehicles being either destroyed or thoroughly looted. Even the vehicles that had not been stolen were completely ripped apart, with only the chassis remaining. The lack of transport and safe warehousing has slowed down the process of offloading and moving relief supplies from the port.

Nightly insecurity made it difficult for aid agency workers to move safely around Monrovia after dark, said van Genderen Stort. But she added that with seven experienced international emergency staff already on the ground and two more expected later on Friday, UNHCR is slowly building up its relief effort.

More supplies are scheduled to be airlifted from a warehouse in Copenhagen in the next few days. Aid is also being transferred from UNHCR's Iraq emergency to Liberia. UNHCR said it is hoping to eventually be able to bring enough supplies for up to 300,000 people - a mix of refugees from neighbouring countries and Liberians uprooted or otherwise affected by the conflict.

The MV Overbeck that docked at Monrovia Friday is scheduled to depart again over the weekend, taking back to Sierra Leone more than 250 refugees who had been stuck in Monrovia during the fighting. It is then expected to shuttle between Monrovia and Freetown.