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Liberia: rebels attack Sinje refugee camp, abduct nurses

Briefing notes

Liberia: rebels attack Sinje refugee camp, abduct nurses

21 June 2002

Liberian rebels on Thursday attacked the Sinje refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone, taking away five local nurses and sending an estimated 11,000 Sierra Leone refugee into flight. The rebels, from a group that calls itself Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), acknowledged that they were holding five nurses from the medical NGO MERCI which works with UNHCR. A rebel commander who identified himself as "General Skeleton" radioed UNHCR from the MERCI's abducted ambulance and said they were taking the women to the rebel stronghold of Voinjama near the Guinean border. He said the women were unhurt. One woman was allowed to speak on the radio and said they were being treated well.

UNHCR is appealing to the abductors to immediately release the nurses and the vehicle.

The refugee camp of Sinje, in Liberia, was attacked in the early hours of Thursday morning. The camp is situated approximately 80 km north-east of Monrovia, on the road leading towards the Sierra Leonean border. The area surrounding the camp had been the scene of sporadic but fierce clashes last month. The camp had been cut off from aid for over a month, following intense fighting on the only access road.

UNHCR was last in radio contact with Sinje at 9:15 on Thursday morning, when heavy gunfire could be heard in the direction of Kle Junction, mid-way between Sinje and Monrovia. Five minutes later, the fighting reached Sinje. During the last radio contact, UNHCR advised the refugees and some 60 local NGO workers at Sinje to leave the area. At 9:45, radio contact was lost.

Sinje was hosting 11,000 Sierra Leonean refugees and about 8,000 Liberian displaced who had sought shelter in the camp following recent fighting. The small town of Sinje was also holding between 4,000 and 5,000 inhabitants. They and people in surrounding villages may have fled.

The UNHCR office in Zimmi, Sierra Leone, is on standby for possible arrivals of refugees and frightened residents from the area affected by the fighting. This morning, however, our office in Zimmi had not reported any important influx. It is believed that people may be hiding in the forest. Some of them may possibly be heading south towards Monrovia.

The new fighting has rendered any repatriation by road impossible, at least in the foreseeable future. UNHCR must again to consider the sea option for some among the 35,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia who may want to return home.