Thousands flee Liberian conflict; UNHCR tries to repatriate Sierra Leoneans
MONROVIA, Liberia, Feb 17 (UNHCR) - As rebel fighting continues in western Liberia, 6,000 Liberians have fled into Sierra Leone while the UN refugee agency works to relocate or repatriate 17,500 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia.
Over the past week, rebels from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) have reportedly gained ground in the western Liberian counties of Lofa, Gbarpolu, Bomi and Grand Cape Mount. There are also reports that they are advancing towards the capital, Monrovia.
The tensions have already driven 6,000 terrified Liberians into neighbouring Sierra Leone. Many others have fled their homes and are internally displaced within Liberia. Some 30,000 are said to be in the Monrovia area, with others going into existing camps for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) outside the capital, along the main road to Liberia's second-largest town of Gbarnga.
Meanwhile, Sierra Leonean refugees in camps near Monrovia risk getting caught in the fighting. The number of security-related incidents has risen in these camps, especially in Zuannah camp, which lies between Monrovia and the conflict zone. UNHCR is exploring the possibility of relocating Zuannah's refugees to camps in safer areas.
At the same time, the refugee agency is working to resume the voluntary repatriation of 17,500 Sierra Leonean refugees that was scheduled for February 7 but was suspended because of security concerns overland. UNHCR is now considering the use of air or sea routes to help these refugees return to Sierra Leone.
As thousands flee western Liberia, many others continue crossing into the country's east from troubled Côte d'Ivoire. More than 88,000 people - Liberian returnees, Ivorian refugees and other nationals - have crossed into eastern Liberia since the Ivorian crisis started last September.
Many of them are stuck near the Ivorian/Liberian border - some unable to return to their strife-torn home areas in other parts of Liberia, others no longer able to move on to their home countries through Guinea, which recently closed its borders. UNHCR is transferring some of the Liberians into IDP camps, and providing assistance to third-country nationals in the absence of other relief agencies.