An emergency rescue operation is under way in waters off Ivory Coast to save 430 Liberian refugees stranded on a floundering ferry. The majority of the refugees are women and children who have been at sea for almost two weeks, returning from Nigeria to Liberia.

U.N. refugee agency representative Panos Moumtzis says the refugees are without food and water.

"The major problem is the lack of food onboard," he explained. "Already several of the children and women are sick with diarrhea, with dehydration. So, it is really very urgent for us to be able to reach the ship right away, to tow it to the closest land and safety, and to be able to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees onboard."

Mr. Moumtzis says the rescue operation has been a joint effort between the French and Ivorian militaries. He says a French airplane has been deployed from Senegal to locate the ferry, which was last reported about 20 kilometers from San Pedro, Ivory Coast's second port city.

The captain of the ferry was last heard from early Wednesday. The first distress call was sent late Tuesday.

Mr. Moumtzis says there is little known about the ship.

"The trip lasted much longer then what they were expecting," he explained. "Obviously the other concern is that this is a small passenger ferry. I am not sure if it's suited for traveling such long distance on the high seas and we have lots of questions about the capacity of the ship. Was it really up to carrying 430 passengers? It sounds like rather a lot."

He says his agency will not start repatriating Liberian refugees until the fall, but many of the people who fled the country during the 14-year civil war are eager to return on their own.