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100,000 Flee Fighting in Liberia - 2002-01-29

The United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday recent fighting north of the Liberian capital, Monrovia has forced as many as 100,000 people to flee the area. The agency is trying to aid fleeing Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees.

The UNHCR says as many as 100,000 people headed to Monrovia in recent days after an outbreak of fighting between government troops and rebels from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

The fighting erupted in the Sawmill area, about 100 kilometers north of Monrovia. The region also provides shelter to Sierra Leonean refugees.

UNHCR spokesman Chris Janowski says the refugee agency has taken large numbers of people into U.N.-run camps. "People fleeing the fighting include both local Liberian population, Liberians displaced from other areas of the country and Sierra Leonean refugees who were sheltering in the area when the fighting erupted. According to the government figures, we have about 100,000 people at Klay Junction, 35 kilometers away from Monrovia, where these people assembled after fleeing the Sawmill area," he said.

Mr. Janowski says UNHCR staff have visited a number of camps housing Sierra Leonean refugees frightened by the latest fighting. These people sought shelter in nearby Liberia to escape ten years of civil war in their own land.

But Liberia has its own bloody past. Up to 200,000 people were killed in Liberia during seven years of civil war that ended in 1997 when Charles Taylor was elected the country's president.

Liberia's defense minister says the rebels killed several civilians in the recent fighting but government troops pushed them back into a forested area.

Human rights groups have accused both sides of atrocities in a war that is closely linked to the recently ended decade-long conflict in Sierra Leone.

UNHCR spokesman Chris Janowski says the agency is pressing ahead with plans to return thousands of Sierra Leone refugees to their homeland.

"We are hoping in February to have a registration, a proper registration, and people will be able to go back. We have already 6,000 people have signed up to go back to Sierra Leone because of the improvement in Sierra Leone and also the trouble in Liberia is also going to be an encouragement as well for people to go back," he said.

Many Sierra Leoneans say they want to return home to vote in coming elections in May.