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Liberia: UNHCR operations severely hampered by upsurge of fighting

Briefing notes

Liberia: UNHCR operations severely hampered by upsurge of fighting

3 April 2003

UNHCR's operations for refugees from the Ivorian conflict in Liberia are now severely hampered by an upsurge of recent fighting in the eastern border regions. Most of our staff - except for those hired locally - have been pulled out of eastern Liberia. This follows generalized violence and two attacks on areas where UNHCR operates transit centres. The fighting has made nearly all eastern regions inaccessible to humanitarian agencies.

The recent fighting in eastern Liberia's Grand Geddeh and Nimba counties has sent thousands of people fleeing. Over the weekend, some 7,000 Liberians arrived in Guinea, many of them severely traumatised and some suffering gunshot wounds. UNHCR is presently transferring them to an existing camp in Lainé, further inland. Meanwhile, we continue to assist some 4,000 of them at the makeshift transit centre in Baala, near the border.

Thousands of others have fled southwards towards Liberia's Atlantic coast, which has so far been spared by fighting. These include Ivorian refugees and other West Africans (including Burkinabè and Malians) who had been staying in two of UNHCR's transit centres in Toe Town and Zwedru, in Grand Geddeh county. Both locations - which held 2,500 and 5,000 refugees respectively - came under attack in recent weeks and the situation remains volatile. At least 5,000 Ivorians and other West Africans had reached our southern transit centre in Harper by yesterday. Thousands of others have reached the coastal town of Greenville, west of Harper.

Others had dispersed to the north towards Saclepea, near the border with Guinea, where UNHCR also has a transit centre. Some had spontaneously settled in River Gee County - immediately south of Grand Geddeh - before being displaced again by the latest fighting, and moving on to find some assistance.

In addition to the 7,500 who have fled the transit centres, there are many more Ivorians and West Africans who have been staying in the border villages and who are believed to be in need of assistance.

Following recent developments, UNHCR will likely concentrate its relief efforts in Harper. We have a transit facility there where we can assist them. The facility hosted some 1,200 people before the recent turmoil. We have also set up a more permanent refugee camp, where some 200 shelters are ready and refugees have started moving in. The camp is situated on a large piece of land and it could be extended to host up to 50,000 people if need be. However, all staff - except for those from the town - have temporarily been recalled from Harper.

Dozens of humanitarian staff - some internationals but most of them nationals - have also been dispersed by last week's fighting. Some have begun to arrive in Monrovia as well as in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire. But more are still believed to be hiding somewhere between Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire.