UNHCR secures nurses' release from Liberian rebels
NZEREKORE, Guinea, September 3 (UNHCR) - Five nurses abducted from a refugee camp in Liberia by rebels have been released after 10 weeks in captivity. They were handed over to UN refugee agency staff at the Liberia-Guinea border yesterday and are now safe in the southern Guinea town of Nzérékoré.
On Monday afternoon, a UNHCR delegation from Nzérékoré secured the nurses' release from two representatives of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), at the Badiaro border in Guinea's southern Macenta Prefecture. The local district authority provided armed escort for the UNHCR team as the area, close to the fighting in neighbouring Lofa County, is literally a war zone.
According to UNHCR staff involved in the release, the nurses were visibly traumatised by their 10-week ordeal and three were suffering from malaria. They were taken to Macenta for a police check and then to Nzérékoré, where they received medical care. They spent Monday night in a hotel.
"We cannot believe that we are free," said the nurses on Tuesday morning, savouring a simple breakfast they found "extraordinary" after 10 weeks in the bush. They added that they were going to call their families for the first time since their abduction.
"They were starting to smile again, and showed signs of renewed hope this morning," said César Pastor-Ortega, UNHCR Head of the sub-office in Nzérékoré.
The UN refugee agency is exploring the best options for the future of the nurses and their families. In the meantime, the women will receive further medical care and other assistance from the agency. They are scheduled to travel to the Guinean capital of Conakry on Wednesday or Thursday, after some rest, accompanied by UNHCR's Pastor-Ortega.
The nurses' release comes after weeks of negotiations and was immediately welcomed by High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers. UNHCR has expressed gratitude to Guinean authorities for helping to provide security during Monday's release.
The nurses were abducted during a June 20 attack by LURD rebels on Sinje refugee camp, 80 km north-west of Liberia's capital, Monrovia. The camp was looted and destroyed in the attack, which sent some 24,000 Sierra Leonean refugees and displaced Liberians fleeing. Some moved towards the Sierra Leonean border, while others fled to Monrovia.
At the time, the Liberian nurses were working in the camp for UNHCR's implementing partner, a local non-governmental organisation called Medical Emergency Relief Cooperative International (MERCI). They were providing medical care to refugees and displaced people in a UNHCR-sponsored clinic. The LURD rebels took the nurses and a UNHCR ambulance. It is believed that the five nurses were held captive in northern Liberia's Lofa County.