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Red Cross Expanding Operations in Liberia Amid Increased Fighting - 2002-07-05

The growing humanitarian problem in Liberia is bringing a new relief effort to the region. The International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, says it is expanding aid as rebel fighting has increased. The Red Cross says it plans to double the budget for its program in Liberia.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said the situation in Liberia has deteriorated this year.

The ICRC delegate general for Africa, Christoph Harnisch, said the Red Cross underestimated the seriousness of the armed rebellion against the government of Liberian President Charles Taylor.

"We had to realize that what is called the opposition is not only disorganized, sporadic ad hoc attacks against villages or against military positions, but this has become increasingly organized and these attacks have been increasingly threatening the capital," Mr. Harnisch said.

Mr. Harnisch said Liberia has no functioning economy and people are barely surviving. He said the population is traumatized by years of conflict and is afraid that the country might, once again, be caught up in a lengthy conflict. "What we see now in humanitarian terms is first large-scale displacements of persons explained by, not only by the acts of war or the acts of guerrilla warfare, but people displace themselves through mere rumors about impending attacks," he said.

The Red Cross is appealing for more than $8 million to provide protection and medical assistance to civilians and the war-wounded. It also hopes to trace relatives of hundreds of children who have been separated from their families by the conflict.

The United Nations refugee agency said it expects up to 100,000 Liberians to flee to Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast to escape the fighting.

It is appealing for nearly $10 million to assist them.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said thousands of people are desperate to flee but are not able to find a safe route out of the country. "Making matters worse, recent arrivals at the border with Sierra Leone said forced conscription is taking place on that highway. They said that all males between the ages of 15 and 45 years were being forcibly recruited as they try to leave Liberia," Mr. Redmond said.

The UNHCR spokesman said both rebels and government forces are involved in the forced conscriptions. He said armed militia reportedly also are extorting money and personal belongings from the people who are fleeing.