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Refugees Fleeing Liberia Fighting, says UNHCR - 2002-06-11

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says fighting in Liberia is driving thousands of people into neighboring countries. The agency says almost 1,500 refugees fled to Guinea alone in just three days.

The U.N. refugee agency says more than 14,400 Liberians have fled to Guinea since the beginning of the year. And it says it expects the exodus to continue as fighting between Liberian government and rebel forces shows no sign of abating.

UNHCR spokeswoman Delphine Marie said aid workers are trying to transfer all new arrivals to camps and transit centers away from dangerous border areas. "It is a difficult operation because it is a more than 500 kilometer border that we have to monitor every day to see where groups of people are arriving," she explained, "and then we have to organize assistance at the border, like medical screening and distribution of high protein biscuits by WFP [World Food Program], and then transport them to a transit site or to one of the existing camps inland where refugees can receive regular assistance."

Ms. Marie said the refugees are very tired upon arrival, but most are in reasonable condition. However, she said, cases of malaria and diarrhea are increasing in the refugee camps because of overcrowding.

She said the UNHCR sees little hope of improvement in Liberia and is preparing for a heavy influx of refugees. She said tens of thousands of Liberian refugees could head for Guinea as well as to Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast this year.

The UNHCR spokeswoman said the agency is opening a third refugee camp in Guinea and is planning to expand overall assistance in the region.