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Liberia: UNHCR evacuates Monrovia staff amid concerns about Sierra Leonean refugees

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MONROVIA, Liberia, June 10 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has evacuated its international staff from Monrovia amid weekend fighting near the Liberian capital and reports of violence and looting in the nearby refugee camps.
Over the weekend, Monrovia's north-western outskirts exploded in a succession of offensives and counter-offensives between government forces and rebels of the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy), sending more refugees and internally displaced Liberians fleeing into the capital.

On Monday, the three remaining UNHCR international staff in Monrovia were evacuated by helicopter aboard a French warship stationed off the Liberian coastline. They headed for the Ivorian city of Abidjan, together with over 500 other evacuees consisting of European Union and US nationals and international staff of diplomatic missions and aid agencies.

UNHCR has expressed concern for 33 national staff who stayed behind, as well as some 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees previously hosted in camps near Monrovia. The refugee agency's remaining staff are presently unable to carry out any significant activity in the refugee camps. They are basically monitoring the unfolding situation on the ground, taking advantage of periodic lulls in fighting to reach the UNHCR office.

A large group of 300 to 400 Sierra Leonean refugees are currently camping in and around the UNHCR compound in Monrovia, together with a handful of other West African nationals. UNHCR staff have tried to convince them to disperse for their own safety amid reports that some rebels arrested by the government in the past few days were Sierra Leoneans. But the group has remained, fearful of what could happen to them in the streets of the highly chaotic capital.

Meanwhile, the refugee agency has lost contact with two of its camps, VOA and Banjor, which were overrun by fighting last week.

UNHCR's office in Monrovia managed to remain in radio contact with another camp, Samukai, situated east of Monrovia. Some Sierra Leonean refugees are still sheltered there alongside hundreds of Liberians who entered the camp for safety. The UNHCR clinic and some shops were reportedly looted in Samukai, and the food is becoming scarce.

By Tuesday, fighting had reportedly quietened down in Monrovia. UNHCR local staff in the capital said, "The city is quiet, people are able to get out from their homes and into the streets to buy some goods. The shops, however, are still closed."

In addition to displaced refugees in Monrovia, UNHCR remains concerned about the eastern part of Liberia. For the past few weeks, the agency has had no access in the region to Ivorian refugees and Liberian returnees who had fled the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire. Some 23,000 Liberians have also fled back into Côte d'Ivoire over the past two weeks.

In an interview Tuesday with the BBC, UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers warned that the situation in Liberia was becoming dire, and urged the UN to send a peacekeeping force to the strife-torn country.

"It is pretty clear that there is an urgent need for an international peacekeeping force, because I think it is too optimistic to ask for a cease-fire that holds if there is not a peacekeeping force on the ground."

Peace talks are currently underway in Ghana, brokered by the 15-nation ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and a UN-backed international contact group on Liberia. A delegation was due to arrive in Liberia on Tuesday to meet Liberian President Charles Taylor after travelling to Guinea, in all likelihood to meet with LURD representatives based there.

In a statement issued Monday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called on all parties to the conflict to take all necessary measures to ensure that civilians are not targeted and are spared the effects of war.

"The members of the [UN Security] Council also reminded all the parties on the ground about their responsibilities under international humanitarian law,' added Ambassador Sergey Lavrov, the President of the UN Security Council, in a separate statement Monday. "We appeal to [them] to provide security guarantees for safe and unhindered access by humanitarian agencies to vulnerable groups."