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Liberians Continue Fleeing Into Guinea Despite Peace Deal - 2003-09-23

The U.N. refugee agency says thousands of Liberians are continuing to flee to neighboring Guinea, despite the peace agreement signed between the Liberian government and rebel forces. At least 4,500 Liberians arrived in Guinea during the past 10 days.

In the past week, the U.N. refugee agency says another 2,000 Liberian refugees have arrived in southern Guinea's forest region. UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond called the ongoing exodus very worrying. "It is obvious that many areas in Liberia are still very insecure and fighting is continuing, making it all the more urgent that peacekeepers be deployed throughout the country as soon as possible. The last thing we need is another outflow of Liberian refugees to neighboring countries," he said.

U.N. aid workers say the new arrivals are from the Loma ethnic group. They apparently fled Liberia's Lofa County fearing ethnic reprisals from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy rebels who announced they were moving into the region after the Liberian army pulled out.

Mr. Redmond says the Liberians who have arrived in Guinea are living in schools and public buildings. Most are children, women and the elderly in need of food and health care.

He says the UNHCR is registering the refugees and has obtained permission from local authorities to start transferring the new arrivals to camps further inland.

In the meantime, the U.N. agency which coordinates humanitarian assistance says it has received reports about serious human rights abuse.

Spokeswoman Elizabeth Byrs said both of Liberia's rebel movements reportedly are using civilians as forced labor. "We know also that some people died of starvation in these areas and some others are forced to flee. And, we are very, very concerned because of this population movement," she said.

Ms. Byrs said the United Nations has received reports from private aid agencies, human rights groups and refugees that women, in particular, are forced to harvest rice from local farms for the LURD rebels in Gbamga, a town 150 kilometers north of the capital Monrovia. She said a smaller rebel group, which controls Liberia's second largest city, Buchanan, is guilty of the same practice.