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Renewed Fighting Causes Many to Flee Liberia - 2002-04-17

The United Nations Refugee Agency, reports more than 4,600 Liberians have fled to Guinea since the beginning of this year, to escape continued fighting between government and rebel forces in their country. The UNHCR says it is preparing for a heavier influx of Liberian refugees in Guinea.

The U.N. Refugee Agency says the uneasy state of calm which had existed in Liberia, ended before Christmas, when renewed fighting between the government and rebels broke out. The fighting has been mainly centered in Lofa county in the northern part of the country. But, it also has spread to other counties and at various times rebels have threatened to take over the capital, Monrovia.

UNHCR spokeswoman, Delphine Marie says this insecure situation has prompted thousands of people to flee to neighboring Guinea. She says people have been crossing the officially closed border in groups of 100 - 150 a day.

"Some of them who arrived recently had left Liberia even around Christmas time or in January, meaning they have been walking through the bush for months," she said. "And, some of them arrived in very bad states of malnutrition, also skin diseases and very, very famished and exhausted," she said.

After the election of President Charles Taylor, Liberia enjoyed a few years of relative stability. In the 1990's, the UNHCR took advantage of this quiet period by repatriating thousands of Liberian refugees from Guinea and Sierra Leone. The repatriation operation stopped in 1999. Since then, Ms. Marie says, the situation has been steadily worsening in the country. She adds the volatile situation in Liberia threatens to endanger the stability of the whole region.

She also notes that Liberian refugees are going into Sierra Leone and that this could put into question the semblance of peace, hope and stability which has just emerged in the country after more than a decade of war.

"Now this upsurge in the neighboring country that is threatening the balance of the region, including Sierra Leone," Ms. Marie said. "A new influx of refugees could further destabilize the process and even after the elections could destabilize the local population."

Among the new arrivals are former Liberian refugees who had previously been repatriated from Guinea. Others are also coming from Monrovia. Ms. Marie says the UNHCR is preparing for the worst. She says the agency is seeking land for a new camp in Guinea, in anticipation of further arrivals.