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UN Concerned About Sierra Leone Refugees in Liberia - 2002-05-28

The United Nations refugee agency has said it is concerned about the safety of Sierra Leonean refugees in neighboring Liberia. The agency said they are in danger of being cut off from aid because of fighting between Liberian rebels and government forces.

The UNHCR said fighting between rebel troops and forces loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor has blocked a key route used by aid agencies to repatriate refugees. The road links the Liberian capital, Monrovia, with Sierra Leone.

Before elections earlier this month in Sierra Leone, the UNHCR had begun sending Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia back home. But agency officials have said the fighting in Liberia has prevented as many as 11,000 refugees from heading home or even getting humanitarian aid.

UNHCR spokeswoman Delfin Marie said the agency is especially concerned about the safety of the refugees living in the Sinje camp near the border with Sierra Leone. "It is specifically that one that is causing problems because the road has been cut off by fighting for two weeks now. We have no access to the camp. We cannot deliver any aid. We only have radio contact with the refugee leaders," she said.

Ms. Marie reports that the refugees in the camp have begun to panic as the fighting gets closer to the camp. In addition to sheltering Sierra Leonean refugees, Ms. Marie said the camp has also become a home to about 8,000 displaced Liberians.

Ms. Marie said because the road from Sinje to Sierra Leone is blocked, the refugee agency is trying to find alternative routes, such as by sea, so the refugees can return home.

"Hopefully, we should have a solution in the next few days to hire a boat from Guinea that would come to Monrovia and then do Monrovia to Freetown and return. But that would only be one boat per week and, of course, [they are] much less productive than the land convoys," Ms. Marie said.

UNHCR said Liberia hosts a total of some 39,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in the agency's six camps, plus an estimated 15,000 refugees outside the camps. About 18,000 refugees have returned to Sierra Leone this year.