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UN Unable to Assist Refugees in Liberia - 2002-06-20


U.N. relief officials say they have been unable to deliver food to thousands of refugees caught in Liberia's rebel conflict. The officials are warning of an impending humanitarian disaster as fighting escalates between rebels and forces loyal to President Charles Taylor.

The United Nations says the fighting in Liberia has displaced tens of thousands of people. Many of them have fled across the border into Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast.

The war pits Liberian government troops against a rebel group called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, which seeks to oust President Charles Taylor. The group has staged a series of hit-and-run attacks in various parts of Liberia, but it has not remained in control of any significant area of the country.

Manuel da Silva, the World Food Program's regional director for West Africa, says boundaries between the two forces remain unclear in the Liberian conflict. That, he says, has made it difficult for relief agencies to deliver food to refugees who are inside the country.

"The situation is changing every day in Liberia," Mr. de Silva said. "There is no real geographic control of the territory by [any] one group. This makes our life extremely difficult because access has been denied so many times by, sometimes not by somebody specific, just by shooting. Access to the refugees has been cut several times in the last couple of months. Since Monday, it has been cut again."

Relief agencies warn that if they continue to be blocked from delivering food supplies in the region, it may not be long before severe malnutrition breaks out in Liberia.

In response, neighboring Ivory Coast is bracing for a large influx of Liberian refugees as conditions continue to deteriorate in Liberia. U.N. officials estimate the number of new refugees in Ivory Coast will rise to 20,000 by the beginning of next year.

The United Nations has been negotiating with the government of Ivory Coast to accommodate new arrivals, and relief agencies expect to open at least seven new refugee camps in Ivory Coast over the coming months.

Relief workers say hundreds of Liberians continue to arrive each day in southeastern Guinea. World Food Program officials say the majority of them are women and children who have walked for days without eating. Many, they say, are in a severe state of fatigue and in poor health.

The World Food Program airlifted several tons of high-protein biscuits to the region on Thursday to help feed the new wave of refugees.