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UNHCR Concerned About Liberian, Sierra Leonean Refugees - 2002-07-14

The U.N. refugee agency says it remains very concerned about the situation of tens of thousands of Liberians and Sierra Leonean refugees who have fled recent fighting in Liberia.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees agency reports more than 40,000 Liberian refugees have fled to Sierra Leone since the beginning of the year. Nearly 40,000 more have gone to Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Ghana.

The agency says thousands of refugees fled to Sierra Leone after their camp came under attack more than three weeks ago by the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

About 24,000 Sierra Leoneans and Liberian displaced people were living in the Sinje refugee camp in northwest Liberia when it was overrun by the rebels.

UNHCR Spokesman Kris Janowski said many of the refugees scattered into the nearby forests and aid workers do not know what has happened to them. He said five nurses working for non-governmental agencies who were kidnapped during the raid were still missing. "We are very concerned about the five NGO nurses who were abducted now more than three weeks ago by rebels in the attack on the Sinje camp," he said, "and we have absolutely no idea where they are and how they are."

Mr. Janowski said two messages were received from the rebels within days of the nurses' abduction, but nothing has been heard since. He said the situation in Liberia has deteriorated even further due to heavy rains which are turning roads into mush.

He said this has increased the hardships of the people who are roughing it in the forest or trying to reach other places of refuge. "Those people who are making it now to Sierra Leone or to the capital Monrovia are exhausted," he said. "Many are ill and there are also reports of people being stuck in the forest because they were wounded during the attack or they were basically too weak to walk anywhere."

Mr. Janowski said many of the same people who fled Sierra Leone's brutal decade-long civil war now are desperate to return home. He said the UNHCR hopes to begin repatriating refugees to Sierra Leone by sea as early as next week.