Côte d'Ivoire: Drifting Liberian refugee ship under tow by French warship
Panos Moumtzis, the deputy representative of UNHCR in Cote d'Ivoire, told IRIN that the Nigerian ferry Dona Elvira had been located by the French warship Le Henaff and was due to arrive in Abidjan on Friday morning.
Moumtzis said the Dona Elvira's captain had reported by radio that there were 430 Liberian refugees on board who were returning home from Nigeria and Ghana following the end of Liberia's 14-year civil war.
However, he said there was still some uncertainty about the exact number on board because a French naval officer who boarded the ship said he reckoned there were considerably fewer passengers.
Moumtzis said the French naval team which boarded the Dona Elvira found the passengers in much better condition than expected. A medical officer treated five people for minor ailments, but Moumtzis said: "Overall their health was sound."
"The biggest factor was the psychological crisis....they were very scared," the UNHCR official said, noting that the ferry had been drifting without engine power since Tuesday and strong winds had been driving it further out into the Atlantic.
Moumtzis said the French warship, which had sailed from Lome in Togo, had provided the passengers of the Dona Elvira with food and water.
The Nigerian vessel was initially due to have been rescued by a tug which was dispatched from San Pedro in western Cote d'Ivoire on Tuesday shortly after the first distress signal was received. But Moumtzis said the tug was forced to return to port after developing trouble in one of its two engines.
This is the second time this year that a ship carrying refugees home to Liberia has had to be rescued after suffering engine failure at sea. In January, another Nigerian vessel carrying more than 200 Liberian refugees home from Ghana had to be towed into the Liberian capital Monrovia by a Dutch warship.
Neither ship had been chartered by the UNHCR. The UN refugee agency is trying to dissuade the 300,000 or more Liberian refugees in West Africa from going home spontaneously just yet. It is urging them to wait until October, when a disarmament programme in Liberia will have been completed and the rainy season will be over.
UNHCR plans to organise an orderly repatriation programme then.
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