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Aid Agencies Concerned for Safety of Refugees in Ivory Coast

A flare-up of fighting in Ivory Coast has alarmed aid agencies, which fear a new wave of refugees into neighboring Liberia. Aid officials also are concerned for the safety of Liberian refugees in Ivory Coast.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Ivory Coast limited its movements in the west of the country, following a flare-up of fighting this past week between rebels and militia loyal to the government. It was the first outbreak of fighting in Ivory Coast since November.

UNHCR Spokeswoman Fati Kaba says, if the situation deteriorates further, she is worried about the security of Liberian refugees in western Ivory Coast, where some blame renewed fighting in the region on Liberian mercenaries.

"The tensions in western Cote d'Ivoire have the potential of adversely affecting the protection of refugees, because each time there's fighting in Cote d'Ivoire, the local population tends to be hostile to the refugees, because of past involvement of Liberian nationals in the fighting," said Fati Kaba.

There are around 17,000 Liberian refugees in Ivory Coast who fled their own civil war, which ended in 2003.

In addition to worrying about the safety of the Liberian refugees in Ivory Coast, Ms. Kaba says, the UNHCR also is concerned that renewed fighting in Ivory Coast could send a new wave of refugees into eastern Liberia, which is ill-equipped to cope.

"Liberia is a country trying to recover from 14 years of a brutal civil war that left a lot of devastation, and this wouldn't be a good time for Liberia to be receiving a large number of refugees," she said.

There are already 5,000 Ivorian refugees in villages on the Liberian border, who fled fighting in Ivory Coast during 2002. Another influx of refugees poured into Liberia this past November, when government forces bombed rebel positions. Ms. Kabba says many refugees are in remote areas in Liberia that have not been accessible to humanitarian agencies for a long time.

Juliette Gwapu is a refugee in the tiny border village of Luaguatuo. Sitting under a tree surrounded by her six children, she recently spoke to VOA. She says she is afraid to return to Ivory Coast, where she says she saw several people killed by rebels.

Ms. Gwapu told VOA that, as a civilian she cannot protect herself from rebels with guns. She says she was chased out of her village, and fled to Liberia, leaving all her possessions behind. She says now she has nothing, and food provided by aid agencies is not enough.

The U.N. World Food Program says it is running out of food in Liberia, and has prioritized the distribution of rations to refugees and displaced people who are returning home. Although the Liberian conflict ended in 2003, the country was left in economic ruin.