Renewed clashes prompt civilians to flee central Liberia
MONROVIA, Liberia, Sept 24 (UNHCR) - Fresh fighting and armed groups harassing villagers for food have sent thousands of civilians fleeing their homes in central Liberia in a new mass movement that has alarmed the UN refugee agency.
Fighting between the government and rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) broke out over the weekend at Gbarnga town in Bong county, a UN security officer who visited the area today said.
The officer reported hearing explosions and gunfire and that only combatants aged between 12 and 18 were seen in the town 180 km north-east of the capital, Monrovia. Thousands of Liberians were reported heading for Guinea, about 50 km farther north-west.
More than 4,500 Liberians have fled to Guinea from Lofa county near Bong over the past two weeks. The new displacement of Liberians has alarmed UNHCR and stressed the urgency of the immediate deployment of peacekeepers in the troubled country.
A West African force of 3,000 has been keeping a fragile peace in Liberia since the departure of Liberian leader Charles Taylor last month that raised hopes a peace accord hammered out in June would hold in the nation wracked by civil strife for years.
The government refugee agency has also reported that the situation has deteriorated elsewhere in Bong, adding that the number of people fleeing to camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) to escape harassment by militiamen has dramatically increased.
In nearby Sanoyie district, armed men running out of food and supplies were reported attacking civilians and raping women, sending some 2,200 Liberians to IDP facilities in the town of Totota.
UNHCR is co-ordinating with other UN agencies and relief organisations emergency assistance for the displaced Liberians.
An inter-agency mission to Gbarnga has been put on hold because of insecurity, but another team today crossed the border from Guiglo in western Côte d'Ivoire and briefly went to Zwedru town in Liberia. It found that the UNHCR office in Zwedru was occupied by rebels but had not been looted. This team planned to return to Zwedru on Tuesday and look into the situation in the surrounding area.
This year alone, 86,000 Liberians have fled to Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ghana, bringing the total number of Liberian refugees who have been in the region for years to 310,000.