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Liberia Conflict Sends Sierra Leone Refugees Home - 2002-02-15

In Liberia, continued fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Charles Taylor has sent thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees fleeing back to their own country.

Refugee agency officials estimate that about 3,000 Sierra Leoneans have already left the refugee camp at Sinje, 90 kilometers northwest of Monrovia, the Liberian capital, for the journey back home. They had fled to Liberia years ago to escape fighting in Sierra Leone. Now they are fleeing fighting between Liberian government forces and rebels of the United Reconciliation and Democracy party.

Agency officials said that on Wednesday about 350 refugees left Sinje for the Kenema, in eastern Sierra Leone. This is the first of a series of voluntary repatriations being carried out under the auspices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Last month, both sides in Sierra Leone's civil war formally agreed to lay down their weapons, and that agreement has prompted many of the Sierra Leonean refugees to want to return home. The fighting in Liberia has given them an added incentive.

But aid agency officials are concerned about the safety of refugees who attempt to return on their own to Sierra Leone. The officials say the border between the two countries is still unsafe, despite the official end of hostilities in Sierra Leone.

The Liberian government on Wednesday issued an order requiring exit visas for Liberians and foreigners leaving the country, saying the new measure is necessary under the state of emergency declared by President Taylor last Friday.

The Sierra Leonean refugees remaining in camps around Monrovia have now been joined by thousands of Liberians fleeing fighting between rebels and government forces. Until recently, most of the fighting had been confined to the north of the country, but it has now spread to the south. Last week rebels briefly captured the town of Klay, 40 kilometers from Monrovia.

World Food Program official estimated Wednesday that over 11,000 refugees had managed to reach Monrovia, most of them fleeing the fighting around Klay. But they are now concerned about how to get enough supplies for them.

Many refugees say they ran from their villages to escape being forcibly recruited into the government forces. However, the government denies it is forcing people to join its army.