Refugees may flee to Guinea as Liberian rebels advance, warns UNHCR
MONROVIA, Liberia, July 31 (UNHCR) - Fighting between Liberian government forces and the rebel group, Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), has spread to several towns in Nimba county in north-eastern Liberia, raising fresh fears that a new wave of refugees could be heading into southern Guinea.
According to reports on Wednesday, the rebels had made significant gains in Nimba county, taking the towns of Batuo and Glawra. There were further reports that MODEL, a recently formed rebel group in Liberia's 14-year-old civil war, was marching on to Saclepea, which is close to Liberia's north-eastern border with Guinea.
As reports of the rebel advance reached Saclepea Wednesday, the town's residents, among them more than 700 Ivorian refugees living at a camp there, prepared to leave to escape the conflict between the rebels and government forces. The latter had been in control of much of this area.
The UN refugee agency now fears that many of these refugees could be headed for Guinea, which is already host to nearly 100,000 refugees, including some 70,000 Liberians, more than 19,000 Sierra Leoneans and nearly 6,000 Ivorians. In recent weeks, some 120 Liberian refugees have been arriving every week in Guinea's south-eastern border areas.
The Ivorian refugees in Saclepea are among some 35,000 Ivorians who fled to Liberia from western Côte d'Ivoire early this year and were being assisted by UNHCR in the counties of Mariland, Grand Gedeh (in eastern Liberia) and Nimba (north-eastern Liberia). About 800 of them were being assisted at a camp in Saclepea before the refugee agency was forced to withdraw its staff from the town in May due to deteriorating security.
Prior to the withdrawal, staff of UNHCR and the UN World Food Programme had travelled to Saclepea in late April to distribute food in the transit camp that was hosting 777 Ivorian refugees and 34 West African migrant workers who had fled the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire. The team stayed in Saclepea for three days but was forced to cut short its stay after hearing reports of fighting in the neighbouring town of Tappita. Since then, food assistance to the group of refugees has been sporadic.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Liberia's capital continues to be dramatic. As of Thursday, some 800 people, among them more than 650 Sierra Leonean refugees and 160 displaced Liberians, were still crammed in UNHCR's Monrovia office in the Mamba Point area, which houses diplomatic missions and international organisations. The whole area has been awash with displaced people for the last few weeks. The refugees in the UNHCR compound continue to live in desperate conditions, their hopes pinned on the expected deployment of Nigerian troops to Monrovia.