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Refugees, Gunfire Create Concern in Liberia - 2002-02-01

Relief agencies are expressing concern about thousands of refugees who fled areas of northern Liberia this week following reports of fighting between government forces and rebels. But the Liberian government on Friday said much of the gunfire heard in recent days was caused by fighters on both sides firing into the air.

Thousands have fled the towns of Sawmill and Tubmanburg, north of the capital, Monrovia, in recent days after the Liberian government reported fighting between its troops and rebels who say they want to overthrow President Charles Taylor.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on Tuesday estimated the number of refugees fleeing the latest reported violence is in the tens of thousands. The group includes some Sierra Leonean refugees who had been living in the Sawmill area.

Following the reports of fighting, rebels with the group calling itself Liberians United for Reconstruction and Democracy, LURD, claimed to have captured the town of Sawmill about 100 kilometers north of Monrovia in recent days. The government claims the town is back under army control.

Liberian Justice Minister Eddington Varmah on Wednesday warned humanitarian workers to stay out of the areas where the fighting allegedly took place.

Jerome Srignot, country director for the French relief group Action Contre la Faim in Monrovia, told VOA that refugees leaving the area heard gunfire but did not see any actual fighting. Mr. Srignot said relief workers are concerned about people who left their homes and escaped into the jungle, especially those who are in areas that the government does not want relief workers to go into. "We have access to some of them," he said. "But we know very well that beyond that point that there are still many more people on the move in the bush who have no access to assistance at all."

Action Contre le Faim says thousands of refugees who fled the gunfire remain trapped in an area known as Klay Junction, about 35 kilometers north of Monrovia. The agency on Thursday appealed to the international community to take action to help the refugees.

The government says it is moving the displaced back to their homes in the Tubmanburg area, and is assuring residents that the town is safe.

In some cases, residents are returning to looted homes. Witnesses say government soldiers went into the deserted areas and took relief supplies that had recently been delivered for refugees.

Liberian Information Minister Reginald Goodridge on Friday said that some of what had earlier been described as fighting was really the sound of fighters firing their weapons into the air. He blamed the exodus of refugees on rebels and accused them of carrying out the looting. "They came into the area, caused some commotion, [and] fired into the air," he said. "They created panic, and movement of people. And then they carried on whatever operation they came for, whether it's to loot food, to supply themselves, or whatever. So there was no actual combat in the Tubmanburg area, but it was simply out of fear that caused people to flee the area."

Witnesses say they saw some soldiers being arrested for looting in recent days. Mr. Goodridge said he could not confirm the witnesses' accounts.