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.
UNHCR is extremely saddened by news that two aid workers for one of our implementing partners, the US-based Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), were killed in Liberia. The workers had been missing since last week's rebel attack in Toe Town, in the east of Liberia. Three ADRA workers, including ADRA's country director for Liberia, Emmanuel Sharpolu, Kaare Lund of ADRA Norway and driver Musa Kita were on their way to visit a Norwegian-funded ADRA project. According to an ADRA press release quoting news reports and the Liberian Defense Minister, the bodies of Mr. Sharpolu and Mr. Kita were found near Toe. There were no details on the whereabouts of Mr. Lund.
UNHCR also remains extremely concerned about the fate of some 2,500 Ivorian refugees and other West Africans who had been staying in our Toe Town transit centre and scattered into the surrounding forest in the wake of the attack. Eyewitnesses say they saw groups of people being marched towards the border by retreating attackers over the weekend. Over the past few days, some of the transit centre residents have reached Zwedru, walking 80 kms to the south of Toe Town, where UNHCR has an office and another transit centre for about 8,000 Ivorians and other West Africans.
UNHCR has been assisting some 13,000 West Africans in eastern Liberia on a humanitarian basis, pending a more permanent solution for them to return to their countries. The West Africans are in five transit centres along the border, together with some of the nearly 40,000 Ivorian refugees who have crossed into Liberia since November. Many of the Ivorians however, remain sheltered in border villages and were awaiting transfer to more permanent camps that UNHCR was in the process of setting up when the attack took place. Another 45,000 Liberians have returned to Liberia from western Côte d'Ivoire since November and have been assisted home or into centres for internally displaced persons in Liberia.
2) HIGH COMMISSIONER COMPLETES MISSION
High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers just returned to Geneva this morning from Tehran, completing a 10-day, three-nation mission to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. In Iran yesterday, Mr. Lubbers visited possible new campsites for Iraqi refugees at Yazde-no and Darshia, in the west of the country. During his two-day mission in Iran, he met President Khatami, Foreign Minister Kharrzai and Interior Minister Lari, as well as senior provincial and Red Crescent officials in Ahwaz, Khuzistan Province.
Mr. Lubbers said that while war is not inevitable, it is important that governments in the region and the humanitarian community work to be prepared. He said the Iranian government has been exemplary in its efforts to handle a possible Iraqi influx.
Yesterday, the High Commissioner saw land being cleared for camps, and roads and other facilities being prepared. Iranian officials told Mr. Lubbers that they expect to have three sites ready in a short time. In all, seven sites are currently under preparation, out of 10 planned. Each is designed to accommodate about 20,000 people each. Iran has a long record of hosting Iraqi refugees. It currently shelters more than 202,000 Iraqis - half the world's recognised Iraqis refugee population. They include 48,000 who reside in camps in the west of the country.
UNHCR plans to support the Iranian government and the Iranian Red Crescent. We are currently shipping relief items to Ahwaz as part of our regional preparedness effort. Regionally, with our other stockpiles in Aqaba, Jordan and Iskenderun, Turkey, we currently have sufficient stocks for some 200,000 people, and expect to have supplies for more than 300,000 pre-positioned by the end of March. The International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, together with the national Red Crescent societies in the region, have additional stockpiles in the six neighbouring countries.
While UNHCR has to date spent more than $25 million building up its regional stockpiles of relief items and fielding additional staff, we have only received $16.6 million, with the last major contribution a month old. The costs of our preparedness effort for up to 600,000 refugees is $60 million, so we still need about $44 million for the effort and to repay borrowed funds. So we're doing the very best we can within the limited resources available to us.
Mr. Lubbers' visit to Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan was his fourth trip to the region since taking office in early 2001.
3) CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
We are extremely worried about the continuing volatile situation in Central African Republic. The instability inside CAR has driven some 26,000 people into neighbouring Chad and we are now checking reports of new refugees from CAR also turning up in the Republic of Congo. A UNHCR team from the Republic of Congo's northern town of Betou is being dispatched to verify reports of a new influx of some 600 Central Africans into the small town of Betikoumba, not far from Betou on the banks of the Oubangui River. Last month, some 200 Central Africans fled fighting in areas south of Bangui into the same area in the Republic of Congo.
According to reports from NGOs working in the area, refugees started arriving in Betikoumba yesterday morning following nightlong fighting in nearby Mongoumba on Wednesday. The CAR town of Mongoumba is on the border junction between Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was not clear what caused the skirmishes between Congolese MLC rebels and the Central African Army, who otherwise are believed to be allies. The situation remains tense.
This new influx into the Republic of Congo from the south-westernmost part of CAR comes amidst a continuing outflow of Central African refugees and former Chadian immigrants from the north of the country into southern Chad. By the middle of this week, the number of new arrivals into southern Chad had climbed to 26,000. Daily numbers had subsided to some 100 - 150 people a day.