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UN Refugee Chief Warns Ivory Coast Conflict Could Spillover to Liberia

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres (file photo)

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres (file photo)

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warns the conflict in Ivory Coast could spillover to Liberia and have a major destabilizing affect in all of West Africa. The refugee chief has just returned from a series of missions, including one to Liberia at the border with Ivory Coast.

U.N. refugee chief, Antonio Guterres, calls Ivory Coast one of the most dramatic displacement crises in the world. As of now, the U.N. refugee agency has registered more than 120,000 Ivorian refugees in Liberia and several thousand more in Ghana, Togo and Guinea.

Guterres notes the conflict has displaced between 750,000 and one million people inside Ivory coast. In addition, he says, thousands of people are stranded in the country’s commercial capital, Abidjan. This, as forces loyal to rival presidential contenders, Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara fight a ferocious battle to the end.

He says he is very concerned Liberia’s successful transition to democracy after years of conflict might be derailed by the civil war in neighboring Ivory Coast. And, he warns the situation could have wider implications.

“It is absolutely essential to support Liberia in order to avoid any kind of destabilization that the situation in Cote d’Ivoire might have over the very successful, until now, Liberian process of peace-building and democratic buildup," said Guterres. "But, there is a concern in relation to the possible spillover of the conflict. Let us hope this will not be the case and I hope also that the conflict ends quickly in order for this kind of effects to be contained because a prolongation of this conflict in Cote d’Ivoire could have a major destabilizing effect in the whole of West Africa.”

Civilians flee with their belongings in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, April 5, 2011

Civilians flee with their belongings in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, April 5, 2011

Guterres says this problem feeds into another major concern. He says the political conflict in Ivory Coast has generated new ethnic tensions. This, he says, was highlighted in the battles that took place in the West before Outtara’s forces moved into Abidjan.

“You have all heard about the massacres in Duekoue can be triggering an inter-ethnic tension and that, of course will last beyond the conflict and this is a very important source of conflict,” said Guterres.

The International Committee of the Red Cross reports more than 800 people were killed in a single day around a church compound in the town of Duekoue. The attackers are believed to be supporters of Alassane Ouattara.

Guterres notes there are about three million foreign workers in Ivory Coast, a large majority from Burkina Faso. Though many of these so-called migrants have been born in Ivory Coast and their families have lived there for generations, they have been denied citizenship.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Guterres, says the citizenship issue could cause problems in the future as it has in the past.