The latest round of fighting, which erupted in eastern Liberia's Toe Town on Friday evening, is said to have involved some Liberian mercenaries, reportedly entering from Côte d'Ivoire and possibly also supported by Ivorian fighters. The Liberian Defence Minister said the rebel group, LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy), was responsible for the attack.
Toe Town is the site of a transit centre established by the UN refugee agency in December 2002 for some 2,500 people of mixed nationalities fleeing the conflict in western Côte d'Ivoire. Now, once again, these people have fled for their lives, some apparently trying to reach Zwedru, some 80 km to the south, where UNHCR has an office and another transit centre.
"Citizens from Toe Town and a few Ivorian refugees arrived in Zwedru over the weekend and told UNHCR field staff that the town was partly burned and deserted, with bodies lying in the streets," said UNHCR's Emergency Co-ordinator, Jo Hegenauer. "We have no information on the state of our transit centre so far."
Local residents also dispersed in different directions, along with the inhabitants of the transit camp. The Liberian government sent reinforcement over the weekend to regain control of the area. On Monday, government forces said they controlled the town, but the highway and surrounding areas were still reportedly very volatile.
"This development is a very serious one, not only for Liberia but also for UNHCR operations in this part of the world," said Moses Okello, the agency's Representative in Liberia. "UNHCR has assisted close to 100,000 persons who have fled the Ivorian conflict since mid-November, but now even this relative 'safe haven' inside Liberia is coming under attack, forcing thousands of people to flee again."
Since fighting spread to western Côte d'Ivoire last November, the UN refugee agency 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.
The agency set up four transit centres along the borders and was in the process of establishing more permanent camps where Ivorian refugees, many of whom are presently staying in volatile border villages, could be hosted.
The Liberian returnees have been assisted to return home to relatively safe areas of Liberia, while those coming from places still at war inside Liberia were transferred to existing camps for internally displaced persons in Totota, north of Monrovia.
UNHCR is very concerned about the safety of the people placed under its protection, and about the security of its staff and non-governmental organisation partners in the border areas.
According to the agency's staff in the region, these developments should not immediately affect the assisted return movement for Liberian refugees stranded near Tabou, in south-western Côte d'Ivoire. Some 2,350 Liberians have been assisted by UNHCR to return to Harper, in eastern Liberia, since January 17. Harper is located at the southern tip of Liberia, quite a distance away from the current conflict zone.
In another development closer to Liberia's border with Guinea, a large number of people have reportedly fled from New Yourpea and Dubuzon towns and were walking in the direction of Saclapea in Nimba county, where UNHCR also has a newly created refugee camp for Ivorians.
These extremely worrying developments come as fighting rages in western Liberia, where LURD rebels have been causing trouble in parts of the Lofa, Gbarpolu, Bomi and Grand Cape Mount counties. Fighting has also been getting increasingly close to Monrovia in recent weeks.
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