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UN Concerned by Refugees Fleeing S. Liberia - 2003-06-04

As peace talks to end fighting in Liberia get under way in Ghana, the United Nations refugee agency is voicing concern about a sudden upsurge of people fleeing fighting in southern Liberia. The agency says the fighting has forced thousands of Liberians to flee to the town of Tabou in western Ivory Coast in recent days.

Refugee agency officials say more than 2,000 Liberians have fled fresh fighting between government and rebel forces around the southern Liberian town of Pleebo in recent days.

UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler says the people, desperate to escape, have paddled canoes across the roaring Cavaly River for the relative safety of neighboring Ivory Coast, which itself has been the scene of months of fighting between government and rebel forces.

"The fighting in this part of West Africa has created a real turnstile situation where refugees and returnees are going across borders passing each other along the way," he said. "Some of the people who have arrived in Cote d'Ivoire in the last few weeks - more than 15,000 to 20,000 people - have entered Cote d'Ivoire since May, have been already refugees once or even twice before. So, now people are becoming refugees a second or even a third time. This is an unacceptable situation."

Mr. Kessler says the town of Tabou has been completely overwhelmed by this latest influx of Liberian refugees. He notes the town itself has a population of only 12,000 Ivorians who themselves are living under difficult conditions.

He says Tabou receives only an hour of electricity daily and residents suffer from a serious shortage of clean water. He says the newly arrived Liberians are further straining the local community's limited resources.

"We are working with local chiefs to try and find places where these new arrivals can be accommodated," Mr. Kessler said. "But, due to the concerns about Liberians in that area, it is getting harder and harder to convince local chiefs to accept new arrivals, however desperate they are and despite the fact that they are mostly women and children."

UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler says the newly arrived refugees escaped with very few belongings and are in need of everything. He says his agency is providing them with plastic sheeting for shelter and the World Food Program is distributing emergency food supplies.

While this aid is addressing the refugees' immediate needs, Mr. Kessler says the long-range outlook for them is grim. He says many of the refugees are in poor health and torrential rains are adding to their misery. He says the U.N. agency is particularly worried about an outbreak of diarrheal disease among the children.