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Thousands of Liberian Refugees Stranded in Ivory Coast - 2003-02-14

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says Ivory Coast's neighbors are refusing to allow thousands of Liberian refugees stranded in Ivory Coast to reach safety.

Because of fighting in their own country, tens of thousands of Liberian refugees have been living in Ivory Coast for years. But after months of civil war in Ivory Coast, many of the refugees have decided that the country that was once a safe haven is no longer safe.

But the U.N. refugee agency says, so far, thousands of Liberians have no place else to go, since many of them are too frightened to return to Liberia because of continued fighting there.

Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the refugee agency, says it has asked other countries in West Africa to accept the refugees - as many as 40,000, but no other country in the region has shown any willingness to take them. Mr. Kessler says their situation in Ivory Coast is getting more dangerous. "We have been pressing countries throughout West Africa to accommodate Liberian refugees who cannot return to home at this time, but so far, there have been no positive responses," he said. "Over the past two days, there have been demonstrations continuing at our offices in Abidjan by Liberian women and children demanding that they be evacuated immediately. They say they were harassed by combatants and by host populations. People in the region are very frightened."

The refugee agency spokesman says, since civil unrest broke out in Ivory Coast five months ago, almost 90,000 people have gone to Liberia, about half that number being Liberian returnees, and the rest refugees from Ivory Coast or immigrant workers.

But Mr. Kessler says many other refugees are unwilling to go to Liberia because of the fighting there. "Over the past week, intensified fighting in northern Liberia has prompted an influx of Liberian refugees into Sierra Leone," said Mr. Kessler. "Thursday, 1,800 Liberian refugees were reported to have crossed into the Sierra Leone border towns of Gendema and Sulima."

Mr. Kessler says the refugee agency has received reports that several thousand more Liberian refugees are on their way to Sierra Leone.