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Thousands Flee Liberia for Ivory Coast as Civil War Heats Up - 2003-05-20


Thousands of Liberians are streaming into Ivory Coast as the civil war in Liberia escalates in the border region. The exodus comes as Liberian rebels have taken over a key timber port town.

United Nations aid workers say the population flight began late last week when rebels attacked Liberia's timber port town of Harper, in Maryland County.

Aid workers said the city has now fallen to a new eastern-based rebel group, but that the population flight into Ivory Coast continues.

Astrid van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, said more than 10,000 people have fled eastern Liberia since Thursday. "Most of the people are crossing in little boats because the River Cavally is dividing Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia in two, so you need a boat to cross. Most people have come in these little pirogues, the local boats, and have arrived on the other side and have found refuge in the little villages around the border," he said.

Aid workers say they haven't been able to access war-affected civilian populations in Liberia for the past two months because of escalated fighting.

Ms. van Genderen Stort said it's also been difficult to help Liberian refugees in western Ivory Coast because sporadic fighting in the eight-month Ivorian conflict continues as well. "The west of the country is not at all in peace, and for all humanitarian access here in Ivory Coast it's absolutely necessary that peace returns in the west so we can have access and we can provide assistance," she said.

Some of the fighters in Ivory Coast resisting efforts for peace have been Liberian refugees and mercenaries recruited by both sides in the Ivorian conflict.

Meanwhile, Liberian President Charles Taylor has accused Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo of backing the eastern-based rebels in Liberia. Mr. Taylor accuses Guinea of backing northern-based Liberian rebels.

On his visit to west Africa last week, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said peace is needed in Liberia to restore regional stability.

Mr. Taylor said he will go to Ghana for scheduled peace talks with Liberian rebels on June 2, but he is refusing power-sharing proposals to end the conflict.