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UNHCR Withdraws Most Staff  From Eastern Liberia - 2003-04-05

The U.N. refugee agency reports its operations inside Liberia are being severely hampered by an upsurge in fighting along the country's eastern border.

A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says the agency has had to withdraw most of its staff, except for those locally hired, from eastern Liberia.

The region, which is close to the border with Ivory Coast, has become increasingly dangerous in recent months, with government troops and rebel forces from Ivory Coast, as well as from Liberia in the area.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said the agency has transit centers in the region for refugees from Ivory Coast's civil war, but he says conditions there are now so dangerous that agency workers can no longer get to the centers.

"The fighting has made nearly all-eastern regions of Liberia inaccessible to humanitarian agencies," he said. "That fighting in Grand Geddah and Nimba counties has sent thousands of people fleeing."

Refugee agency officials say seven-thousand refugees from Liberia have gone to Guinea, and thousands of others have fled southward toward Liberia's Atlantic coast, an area that has so far been spared fighting.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, Niurka Pineiro, says, starting Saturday, it will begin helping people displaced by fighting in West Africa return to their homes.

Since September, when there was a failed coup against Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, more than a million people have been displaced within Ivory Coast and in neighboring countries.