As some 30,000 flee to Liberia, UNHCR urges help for civilians in besieged Abidjan district
GENEVA, March 1 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Tuesday reiterated its mounting concern about citizens trapped in a conflict-torn district of Côte d'Ivoire's commercial hub, Abidjan. Some 30,000 Ivorians have fled to Liberia since fresh fighting erupted about a week ago in the northern suburb of Abobo and other parts of the country. In Liberia, they join some 40,000 refugees.
Weeks of simmering tension have boiled over between supporters of the main rivals in November's presidential election, which both sides claimed to have won. Last Friday, High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres appealed for a halt to the fighting in Abidjan so that civilians could be allowed to leave.
"Today we are repeating that call. There must be no targeting of civilians. All efforts must be made to prevent civilians being placed in harm's way," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told journalists in Geneva.
UNHCR staff in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Côte d'Ivoire, said the situation in Abobo remains grim. The district is home to an estimated 1.5 million people. Many have already fled, but armed groups are reportedly preventing others from leaving.
"Of particular concern to us are the risks for people who may have difficulties with moving, including the elderly, the sick, and pregnant women," said Fleming, adding that "as of yesterday, people were still fleeing Abobo, taking advantage of a brief lull in fighting."
Church authorities in Côte d'Ivoire said some 60 families, mainly women and children, were trapped in a church in Abobo where they were being prevented from leaving by armed men. They have no food, no water and no sanitary facilities, and dead bodies are said to be lying nearby.
UNHCR monitoring teams, which have been present on the outskirts of Abobo, have heard other reports of people being prevented from leaving the areas of fighting. Some families have been forced to hand over money or personal possessions to be allowed to leave. There are reports of many dead bodies, buses burned and shops looted, and of young militiamen attacking people inside their homes.
Those who have already made it out are having to contend with rising transportation costs as thousands of families try to board taxis, buses or private cars to reach safer neighbourhoods or their home villages. Taxi drivers are reported to be refusing to take people to some destinations in other parts of the city because of reports of gunfire over the weekend.
Separately, in western Côte d'Ivoire most of the 9,000 internally displaced people at the Catholic mission in the town of Duekoue have left out of fear of new conflict. The camp UNHCR was planning to build in the area is now on hold.
In Liberia, UNHCR is responding to the escalating influx with plans for a second camp. "We are also increasing our capacity to transfer people to the 15 designated villages or to the existing Bahn camp, where there are basic services such as health care, education and clean water," Fleming said.
The majority of refugees in Liberia are still hosted in more than 76 border villages, most of which are in remote, inaccessible locations.
By Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba in Geneva and Hélène Caux in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire