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Liberia: Evacuation of Sierra Leoneans aborted amid renewed fighting in Monrovia

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MONROVIA, Liberia, July 21 (UNHCR) -- As shells and mortar fire rocked the Liberian capital of Monrovia for a third day on Monday, the UN refugee agency expressed grave concern for thousands of displaced people and refugees, including some 300 Sierra Leoneans whose evacuation by sea was aborted on Sunday.
On Friday, fighting between the Liberian government forces of beleaguered President Charles Taylor and LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) flared up again after a four-week lull.

The first rebel shells hit areas just outside Monrovia as UNHCR staff wound up the registration for the repatriation of hundreds of Sierra Leonean refugees in Samukai camp, some 13 km from the city. The would-be returnees had been registered and "wrist-banded" ahead of their scheduled departure on Sunday on the UNHCR-chartered ship, MV Overbeck. All refugees who are registered for return are required to wear a plastic wristband that acts as a boarding pass. Only those with UNHCR-provided wristbands are allowed to board the evacuation vessel.

Before the LURD rebels overran their camp on Friday, Sierra Leonean refugees in Banjor camp had also been waiting for their turn for registration and wrist-banding, an exercise that had been set to start on Saturday. As fighting continued unabated on Saturday morning, anxious refugees made frantic calls to UNHCR staff to find out what to do about their pending repatriation. Some had already packed their belongings, ready to depart. They were scared and worried that they would not be leaving Liberia, said UNHCR staff.

"They had come so close to returning home," said one of UNHCR's field staff in Monrovia. "They were very disappointed."

On Sunday, the fifth voyage of the MV Overbeck was aborted as the new wave of fighting gripped the battle-weary city, sending thousands of people fleeing into the centre of Monrovia. The Liberian capital was already jammed with tens of thousands of displaced Liberians and Sierra Leonean refugees who had fled into the city to escape the conflict in June. Many have camped in public buildings, too scared to return to their homes.

Unable to dock on Saturday, the MV Overbeck was on Monday still waiting offshore for the situation to stabilise. Moses Okello, UNHCR's representative in Liberia who is currently in the Ivorian city of Abidjan, expressed concern Monday that if the situation does not stabilise in the coming days, UNHCR would be forced to send the ship back to Freetown and interrupt a sea evacuation operation that has so far taken more than 1,250 Sierra Leonean refugees to safety since it began on July 4.

UNHCR's national staff were unable to get to the UNHCR office in Monrovia on Monday. They had no information about the situation of refugees in Banjor and VOA camps, both of which were overrun by LURD rebels on Friday. VOA camp has been deserted for several weeks as many of its residents fled to the capital in the wake of rebel attacks on Monrovia in early June.

Speaking from Monrovia on Monday afternoon, one of UNHCR's field staff said he and his family were now behind rebel lines. His neighbourhood, some 10 km outside Monrovia, was "calm but tense," although fighting was continuing along the main highway into Monrovia, he added. His community has formed a neighbourhood watch to prevent looting.

"The shelling is still continuing," he said.