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UNHCR to Resume Overland Repatriation of Sierra Leone Refugees - 2002-08-19

The United Nations Refugee Agency says it soon will fully resume the overland repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees from Guinea, which was suspended July 1. UNHCR says it carried out a successful test run last week.

UNHCR says it suspended its repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees last month, when thousands of Liberians fled to Sierra Leone to escape fighting between Liberian government troops and rebels.

The refugee agency says it used the trucks originally set aside for the Sierra Leonean repatriation to transport the Liberian refugees away from the dangerous border zone.

Now the agency has decided it can do both jobs. UNHCR spokeswoman Delphine Marie says last week's test run was encouraging.

"That first return is a test run, because a lot still needs to be done on the roads, and a couple of bridges need to be repaired, and there are places where the roads need to be stabilized, or repaired," she said. "So, it will resume for good in the next few days, or maybe a week or two. And we should be able to use those trucks from Guinea. The only inconvenience is that the turnaround trip will take about eight days."

Ms. Marie says this will limit the number of returns from Guinea to about 300 people a week. About 42,000 Sierra Leonean refugees reside in four camps in Guinea. Most come from two Eastern districts in Sierra Leone-Kono and Kailahuna. Ms. Marie says there are two drop-off points close to these villages.

"We give them the resettlement package, which includes a two-month food ration from WFP [World Food Program], plastic sheeting, tarpaulin, blankets, mattresses, jerry cans, etc. And, then, they get sent home," she said. "I think they may get a small transport allowance just to finish the trip off to their villages."

Meanwhile, Ms. Marie says, the repatriation of Sierra Leoneans from Liberia by sea is continuing. She says a ship transports about 600 refugees a week from the Liberian capital, Monrovia, to Freetown in Sierra Leone. About 1,500 refugees have been repatriated over the past month. To speed things along, Ms. Marie says, the UNHCR is considering hiring a second ship, or flying the refugees home. She says transporting them by road remains risky.