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Liberia Fighting Displaces Thousands - 2002-02-26


United Nations aid agencies say fighting in Liberia is displacing thousands of people inside the country, while many others are fleeing to neighboring Sierra Leone.

The aid agencies say tens of thousands of Liberians are fleeing their homes because of fierce fighting between government troops and rebel soldiers.

Kris Janowski of the U.N. refugee agency reports that many of those fleeing are seeking safety across the border in Sierra Leone. "More than 9,500 Liberians have arrived in Sierra Leone since February 8th," he said. "Over the past few days there have been people arriving at a rate of 300 to 500 a day because of fighting inside Liberia."

But most of those fleeing have stayed inside Liberia. The World Food Program (WFP) says it is providing food aid to over 50,000 people who have been forced to leave their homes. Many of these have sought shelter in camps set up in the capital, Monrovia, and in the nearby towns of Kakata and Sinje.

WFP spokeswoman Christiane Bertiaume says ever-increasing numbers of Liberians have been forced to leave their homes. "They are telling us that their home towns are completely deserted," she said. "Same thing also with Klay Junction where last week we had 10,000 displaced people. This town has been completely emptied. These people have been displaced once and they are displaced again. And many leave the country, many around the villages around Heindii said when they saw people running and fleeing, they got scared."

The U.N. children's organization (UNICEF) says it is sending emergency supplies of food and medicine to help the displaced people, most of whom have lost just about all of their belongings.

UNICEF spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte says the agency is paying special attention to the needs of families with young children. "Some have received aid, some have not received aid," she said. "A lot have children under five and these are families we are targeting most. There are three 3,000 families with children under five. They are malnourished, they have been traumatized and they need the aid."

Ms. Belmonte says UNICEF is also setting up areas inside the camps where children will be protected and not drawn into the conflict.

Since 1999, forces loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor have been fighting against a rebel group called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. For most of that time, the fighting had been confined to the north of the country, but in recent weeks the rebels have been moving south, closer to the capital, setting off the fighting that has sent thousands fleeing.

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