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UNHCR briefing notes: Chad, Liberia, Pakistan

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Kris Janowski - Media Relations
This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva. Further information can be found on the UNHCR website, www.unhcr.ch, which should also be checked for regular media updates on non-briefing days.

1) - CHAD

In Chad, workers locally hired by UNHCR have cleared eight hectares of forest for a temporary site that will accommodate thousands of people who have fled fighting in neighboring Central African Republic (CAR) amid reports of killings and atrocities. Over the past few days, the influx into Chad of Central African refugees and Chadian nationals, who had been living in CAR, subsided to between 100 and 150 a day, from a daily high of 1,000 last week. However, the figure includes only those using the main border crossings, while many more could be crossing at smaller border points. There are now more than 26,000 people in at least six locations along Chad's south-western border. More than 12,000 of them are Central Africans, while 14,000 are former Chadian immigrants to CAR.

Over the past few days, UNHCR staff have visited nine border villages. At one location, our staff met a local official of the CAR town of Nia-Pende, near Paoua in the north-west, who had also fled to Chad. The official reported that the 45 villages which make up Nia-Pende are now deserted. The nearby town of Bossangoa, which had a population of some 25,000, is also said to be empty. Inhabitants of these towns and adjacent areas are said to be hiding in the bush or have crossed the border into Chad to escape rebel attacks. Refugees say some villagers were killed and their homes burned by CAR rebels loyal to the former army chief, François Bozize. They also say that some of those who had gone into hiding to escape the rebels were hunted down in the bush and killed. Children were not spared. These accounts, which cannot be independently verified by UNHCR, were repeated by several groups of refugees who have sought refuge in a number of Chadian border villages.

In one village with 400 Central African refugees, at least 20 women said they had been separated from their children when they fled from rebels. The whereabouts of their children are still unknown.

While CAR nationals complain about atrocities by rebels, Chadian nationals said they fled attacks by CAR government forces which are allegedly backed by the Democratic Republic of Congo MLC rebel group. However, northern CAR has been off limits to the international community for several months now and it is difficult to verify reports about the situation there.

2) - LIBERIA

We are extremely concerned over the fate of thousands of people who have been forced to flee fighting in eastern Liberia around the village of Toe Town. UNHCR staff in the region report that more than 2,500 Ivorians and other nationals have been forced to flee a UNHCR transit camp in the town following new fighting in Liberia's Grand Geddeh district. There are also reports that some 8,000 residents have fled Toe Town as well.

UNHCR is also extremely concerned about the safety of humanitarian workers in the region.

The latest round of fighting, which erupted in Toe Town on Friday evening, allegedly involved some Liberian mercenaries who reportedly entered from Côte d'Ivoire. The Liberian Defence Minister said the rebel group, LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy), was responsible for the attack. Liberian officials said they were supported by Ivorian fighters.

UNHCR set up the Toe Town transit centre in December for some 2,500 people of mixed nationalities fleeing the conflict in neighbouring western Côte d'Ivoire. Now, once again, these people have fled for their lives. Some are apparently trying to reach Zwedru, about 80 kms to the south, where we have an office and another transit centre. Zwedru itself already hosts about 8,000 refugees and other West Africans in the UNHCR-run transit center.

A UNHCR staff member in the region said a few residents from Toe Town and some Ivorian refugees arrived in Zwedru over the weekend. They said the town was partly burned and deserted, with bodies lying in the streets. As of this morning, we still have no information on the state of our Toe Town transit centre.

Thousands of local residents also fled the town, many reportedly into the surrounding forests. The Liberian government sent reinforcements over the weekend to regain control of the area. Yesterday, government forces said they controlled the town, but the highway and surrounding areas were reportedly still insecure.

Our representative in Liberia, Mr. Moses Okello, described the situation as very serious, not only for Liberia but also for UNHCR's operations in the entire region. UNHCR has assisted close to 100,000 people who have fled the Ivorian conflict to Liberia since mid-November, but now even that sanctuary is coming under attack. Since fighting spread to western Côte d'Ivoire last November, UNHCR in eastern Liberia has assisted close to 40,000 Ivorians and 45,000 Liberian refugees previously living in Côte d'Ivoire. UNHCR has also helped some 13,000 third-country nationals, mainly from Burkina Faso and Mali, who were living in Côte d'Ivoire and had crossed the border into Liberia for safety.

We set up four transit centres along the borders and were in the process of establishing more permanent camps where Ivorian refugees, many of whom are presently staying in volatile border villages, could be hosted.

These extremely worrisome developments come as fighting rages in western Liberia as well, where LURD rebels have been active in parts of Lofa, Gbarpolu, Bomi and Grand Cape Mount counties. The fighting in the west has driven 7,000 Liberians into neighbouring Sierra Leone since early February. Fighting has also been getting increasingly close to Monrovia in recent weeks.

3) -- HIGH COMMISSIONER IN PAKISTAN

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers continues his mission in Pakistan today, meeting with Minister of Foreign Affairs Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri and Minister of Interior Faisal Saleh Hayat. This afternoon, he planned to meet President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Mr. Lubbers arrived in Pakistan on Sunday following a five-day visit in Afghanistan.

Mr. Lubbers met Monday with the minister for the frontier regions and northern areas, Mr. Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao, who oversees UNHCR's main government partner agency in Pakistan. They agreed that Pakistan would be prepared to sign a tripartite agreement later on this month in Geneva on the return of Afghan refugees, together with the Afghan government and UNHCR. This year, we plan to facilitate the return of up to 600,000 Afghan refugees from Pakistan, out of the 1.2 million refugees we expect to voluntarily go back. UNHCR also plans to aid another 300,000 displaced Afghans still inside the country to return home as well.

Over the last month, all UNHCR repatriation staff in Pakistan underwent refresher training. We have also just established four sites in Pakistan and one location inside Afghanistan where returning refugees will undergo iris recognition scanning using new technology. Together with our other verification techniques, the iris recognition systems will further reduce the possibility of Afghans seeking additional repatriation assistance after having previously repatriated to their homeland.

Tomorrow (Wednesday), Mr. Lubbers travels to Iran, where he is scheduled to meet Foreign Minister Kharrazi and Mr. Lari, Minister of the Interior. He is scheduled to meet in the evening with President Khatami. Thursday morning, Mr. Lubbers will travel to Ahwaz in western Iran, a region hosting many of Iran's 202,000 Iraqi refugees. He will visit some of the sites currently hosting the long-time Iraqi refugees, and meet with provincial and Red Crescent Society officials in the region.

Mr. Lubbers returns to Geneva on Friday. This is his fourth trip to the region since becoming High Commissioner in 2001.