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UN Liberia: situation in countryside 'precarious'

Liberian capital calm but situation in countryside 'precarious' - UN

With a fragile peace accord holding and a slight increase in the overall security in Liberia, life is slowly returning to normal inside war-ravaged Monrovia, but the United Nations today said it remained concerned about thousands of people still struggling for survival beyond the capital city's limits - and the reach of relief agencies.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that some families have started returning to their homes, businesses were slowly picking up and traffic increasing. More than 400 refugees have voluntarily moved out of the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - where they had been holed up for weeks as the battle for control of the city raged - opting either for repatriation to Sierra Leone or relocation to camps scattered around the Liberian capital.

But information on the situation in the rest of the country is largely anecdotal, aside from the few towns reached in recent days by humanitarian missions. But some 3,000 to 4,000 people are reportedly on the road from Gbatala to displaced camps in central Liberia, amid reports of fresh fighting between Government and rebel forces.

UN Assistant Emergency Relief Coordinator Ross Mountain has pursued discussions with the warring factions to promote safe and unhindered access to outlying areas. Since the signing of an agreement between the UN and the signatories to the peace agreement for the safe delivery of humanitarian aid, faction leaders have shown a greater willingness to cooperate with the relief agencies, although it remains to be seen if this message will trickle down to the forces in the countryside.

UN assessment missions to several parts of Liberia have reported that an estimated 45,000 displaced people are present in the second-largest city, Buchanan, while the situation in Tubmanburg remains precarious.

Meanwhile, rescue efforts are underway for a ship charted by UNHCR. The MV Overbeck, carrying186 people, including more than 150 Sierra Leonean refugees returning home to Freetown, has been adrift since Sunday. Engine trouble developed shortly after mid-day as the ship was sailing on high seas, causing it to stall and drift in the strong current. UNHCR is in constant contact with the crew, and despite the uncomfortable situation, food and water on board were reported to be still sufficient.

Two other ships - the United States Navy's USS Quarterhall and the UN World Food Programme's (WFP) Martin - rushed to the site on Sunday afternoon but failed to repair the Overbeck's engine. The WFP vessel started towing the stalled ship back towards Monrovia. In the meantime, UNHCR has chartered a third vessel, Sea Spring, from Sierra Leone, which is expected to tow the Overbeck to Freetown, where it is scheduled to arrive on Wednesday.

In other news, Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative for Liberia, Jacques Paul Klein, is headed to Guinea today as part of his series of talks with regional leaders on the situation in Liberia.


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