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UN Urges Ivory Coast Refugees to Maintain Neutrality During Conflict - 2002-12-14

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is urging refugees in Ivory Coast to remain neutral in the conflict in the troubled west African nation. The move comes after unconfirmed allegations that both sides in the conflict have been trying to recruit refugees.

The U.N. assistant high commissioner for refugees, Kamel Morjane, spoke to refugees at a transit center in Abidjan.

"It is important that the refugees should not be part of any political side. Wherever you are coming from, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo, Togo, wherever; it is important to keep as we are, the U.N. and the humanitarian [groups], totally neutral in this," he noted. "This is how you will help us to help you and you will help the authorities to get a better position when it comes to your protection."

UNHCR officials say they have received unconfirmed reports from Liberian refugees in western Ivory Coast that the government has been recruiting them to fight against the rebels. Similar reports had been heard earlier regarding rebel recruitment of refugees in the same part of the country.

Mr. Morjane has come to West Africa because the agency is worried about what it calls a rapidly deteriorating situation in Ivory Coast and its impact on the region. He will also visit Liberia, Ghana and Togo in the coming days.

Mr. Morjane says he will urge all sides to refrain from involving refugees in the Ivorian conflict.

"We have discussed it clearly with the government. I was very pleased to hear notice that they do understand it, that they will do their best not to make any confusion on that," he said. "This was one of the issues I did also raise with the government, the issue of recruitment from the parties in this conflict, and the same message will go to everyone."

The U.N. refugee agency says recent fighting has displaced tens of thousands of refugees. The agency says some 12,000 people are currently gathered at the Nicla refugee camp, near the town of Guiglo in western Ivory Coast. The camp usually hosts less than 5,000.

The recent escalation in the conflict and allegations that foreigners are backing some of the rebel groups have made this a difficult time for foreigners in Ivory Coast.

The agency has repatriated two small groups of Liberians who chose to go home rather than stay in Ivory Coast. A small group of Sierra Leoneans is scheduled to go home next week.

So far, no other country has volunteered to host the refugees who do not want to remain in Ivory Coast but are afraid to return to their native countries.

Mr. Morjane says the United Nations is working on a solution to the problem. He would give no details, but said the agency hopes to make an announcement in the next few days.