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10,000 Ivorians Flee to Liberia


The U.N. refugee agency says that more than 10,000 Ivorians have fled into neighboring Liberia, causing a new strain in the country that is trying to recover from more than 14 years of civil war.

The U.N. refugee agency said the largest influx of refugees from Ivory Coast arrived just after the Ivorian military began conducting air raids on the rebel-held north, on November 4, violating an 18-month-old ceasefire.

A spokeswoman for the agency, Marie-Helene Verney, says the numbers have slowed a bit, but it is difficult to determine exactly how many Ivorians are seeking refuge in Liberia.

"We have exactly 10,045 Ivorians registered in northeastern Liberia," said Ms. Verney. "However, these numbers could be in fact just the tip of the iceberg. There could be many more. The reason for this is that they are entering Liberia through a river, through many crossing points and it is quite difficult to have access to all of the people arriving."

Ms. Verney says the majority of the refugees are relying on the generosity of the local Liberian populations, but there is a scarcity of food, clean water, and medical supplies in that region.

Access to the area is a problem because of the treacherous terrain and the lack of infrastructure. Ms. Verney says after 14 years of civil strife, the area has not had the opportunity to rebuild and the strain of the new refugees will be great.

The air raids in Ivory Coast stopped after three days when a French position in the north was hit and nine French peacekeepers and one American were killed. The French retaliated by destroying the small Ivorian air force. But sporadic conflicts throughout much of western Ivory Coast have been reported on occasion.

Ms. Verney says that Ivorians continued to flee because they are concerned that the violation of the ceasefire could lead to a new civil war in Ivory Coast.

"At this stage we are dealing with new arrivals," she said. "It is a very recent phenomenon. We hope it will not last. We hope that this situation will resolve itself. It needs to be stressed that most of the refugees who come to Liberia are saying they are fleeing Cote d'Ivoire, not because of fighting, but because they are scared that there could be renewed fighting in the future between the rebels and the government soldiers. So it is not actually a question of what is happening, but fear of what might happen."

There have also been reports that former combatants from Liberia have crossed over the into Ivory Coast recently sparking fears that the northern rebels as well as the government are recruiting fighters to plunge the nation back into war.

The United Nations has imposed an arms embargo against the Ivory Coast and will meet again in December to discuss further sanctions if key provisions of the peace agreement are not implemented.

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