ABIDJAN, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast's civil war has driven more than 600,000 people from their homes in barely four months of conflict and the picture is getting worse, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday.
The United Nations body said between 600,000 and 640,000 people had fled to nearby countries or other parts of the West African nation to escape ethnic tension and fighting that has killed hundreds since a failed coup on September 19.
An untold number of others were abandoning settlements near the Liberian border in the cocoa-rich southwest of the country, where rebels have recently extended their battle front.
"The situation in the west is quite explosive," Gemmo Lodesani, WFP's head of emergencies in Ivory Coast, told reporters in the main city, Abidjan.
"We don't really know what's happening."
The war has carved Ivory Coast roughly in half along ethnic lines, dividing the rebel-held, mainly Muslim north from the government-controlled, mainly Christian south.
Two more rebel factions sprang up in November in the west, helped by fighters from Liberia. They hold a chunk of territory around the western coffee town of Man and have also made inroads in the southwest, where fighting continued to rage on Thursday.
All three groups and the government are due to attend peace talks in Paris next week and Lodesani said it was vital that all sides agreed to guarantee safe passage for relief workers.
"Even if they can't get a political agreement they should at least come away with a humanitarian accord," he said.
WFP said 400,000 people had fled south from the north and centre of Ivory Coast, while between 60,000 and 100,000 had left the Man area. A further 140,000, mostly migrant workers from neighbouring countries, had left Ivory Coast completely.
LIBERIANS CAUGHT IN MIDDLE
Lodesani said the plight of Liberian nationals who had been living in western Ivory Coast was particularly serious.
Tens of thousands of Liberians fled an upsurge of fighting in their own country early last year, at a time when Ivory Coast was still an oasis of relative stability in a volatile region.
Now WFP estimates some 53,000 Liberians and Ivorians have gone in the opposite direction and are putting extra strain on relief efforts to help Liberia's own 185,000 internal refugees.
Other Liberians remain in Ivory Coast, fearing reprisals if they go home, but also in danger if they stay.
"Liberian refugees are caught between the Liberian fighters (helping the Ivorian rebels) and local people," Lodesani said. "Local people see them as the cause of their problems."
He said about 5,300 displaced Liberians were still stuck in a makeshift refugee camp in the western town of Guiglo, despite urgent U.N. efforts to negotiate a safer home for them in southern Ivory Coast or a neighbouring country.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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