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UN Warns Ivorian Refugees Could Destabilize Liberia

United Nations aid agencies say they are concerned that the influx of thousands of refugees from the Ivory Coast into Liberia could threaten that country's fragile peace process. The Geneva-based U.N. Refugee Agency says about 13,000 refugees from Ivory Coast have crossed into Liberia over the past two weeks.

Humanitarian agencies in northeastern Liberia say they are struggling to cope with the arrival of thousands of refugees from neighboring Ivory Coast. They say most of the refugees are women and children, a great majority of whom have used canoes to escape their country to cross into Liberia.

The agencies say they are concerned that a mass exodus from Ivory Coast could destabilize already strained communities in Liberia.

U.N. Refugee Agency spokesman Ron Redmond says among the new arrivals are about 900 Liberian nationals. Until two weeks ago, he says these people had been among the 70,000 Liberian refugees still in Ivory Coast.

"The UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] has just begun a repatriation program for some 340,000 Liberian refugees scattered throughout the region," he said. "So, we are particularly concerned now about the 70,000 Liberians who are in Cote d'Ivoire itself and what it could mean if they came home en masse. It could cause enormous problems, particularly in this remote region of northeastern Liberia where we are already stretched very, very thin."

Mr. Redmond says the refuges who have fled Ivory Coast are dispersed into more than 20 villages in a very remote corner of Liberia. He says water and security are two of the most pressing problems. He says there is no potable water and an urgent need for food and medicine.

The World Food Program is feeding hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in Liberia, as well as the refugees who are returning home. Spokeswoman, Christiane Berthiaume, says the agency does not have enough money to feed these people. It needs $20 million by the end of March to care for the current case load.

She says a major influx of refugees from Ivory Coast will create an added burden. She says more money is urgently needed.

"And it is important because Liberia is stabilizing," she added. "There is a peace agreement and this is the time now where the international community should commit itself to help those people. You have to bring them back in places where they can start a new life in peace and security if you do not want to create more instability."

The U.N. agencies say it is very difficult to deliver food and other assistance to the Ivorian refugees because roads and bridges have been destroyed by 14 years of conflict. They say relief supplies may have to be airlifted into the area, an operation which is very costly.