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UN Fears Possible Liberian Refugee Crisis - 2002-02-12

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says Tuesday fighting between rebels and government forces in Liberia has created a new refugee crisis in western Africa. Refugee agency workers are speeding up efforts to help the refugees but their numbers are increasing every day.

UNHCR says thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees who had been living in camps in Liberia, as well as many Liberians, have crossed into Sierra Leone. Fighting first broke out last week between Liberian rebels and government forces and ever since then the number of refugees fleeing has been steadily increasing.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says the refugees have fled to the town of Jendema on the Sierra Leonean side of the border. He says UNHCR aid workers registered more than 3,000 Liberians and 2,000 Sierra Leoneans on Monday. On Tuesday, he says, another 1,000 people arrived in the area and there are reports that many more people are on the way.

"We are going to begin relocating the newly arrived Liberian refugees about 350 kilometers inside Sierra Leone. Many of the new arrivals are camped in Jendema. Others have gone to border villages. We are also going to transfer the returned Sierra Leonean refugees to their home areas. Most of them are from Kailahun, which is due north of this area in the northeast of Sierra Leone," he said.

Mr. Redmond said before the latest outbreak of fighting, about 6,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia had voluntarily signed up to return home. He says the current instability probably will push many more Sierra Leoneans to sign up for the trip home.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) says it fears many of the child soldiers who had stopped fighting when Liberia's civil war ended five years ago will be recruited again. UNICEF spokesman Marc Vergara says about 15,000 children were forced to fight in that war.

"The recent events show that there is a risk that these children may be re-mobilized, especially as only about 4,319 have been officially demobilized, among them a fraction of girls," he said.

Mr. Vergara has said the only life many of these children have known is that of soldiers, and he is afraid many of them might be tempted to go back to that life. A United Nations treaty prohibiting governments and rebel groups from recruiting children under age 18 came into force Tuesday. The new fighting in Liberia could provide a test case of how effective the treaty will be.