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Liberia: UN Aid To 50,000 People Fleeing Flighting

UN rushes emergency aid to over 50,000 people fleeing fresh fighting in central Liberia

With United Nations relief agencies rushing to provide food, clean water and other basic necessities, more than 50,000 terrified people are on the move in central Liberia, fleeing their homes amid fears of new rebel assaults on towns and villages near Totota.

For hours yesterday, the road between Totota and neighbouring Salala town was packed with a sea of anxious and tired people, dragging their feet under the enormous weight of their belongings, uprooted by fears of fresh violence in the area. Without immediate assistance, the UN fears they could walk all the way to Monrovia, already tense and overcrowded after months of fighting between rebels and government forces.

As part of an inter-agency emergency effort, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today dispatched trucks with plastic sheeting, food and water for the thousands of newly displaced people. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other non-governmental agencies are providing high-protein biscuits and other necessities.

"It is not completely clear why the people decided to leave en masse, but it is clear that they are afraid," said Julien Vrancken, the agency's Field Security Advisor. "The news of a nearby attack by LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and the arrival of government militia in the camps, harassing and looting, were enough for more than 50,000 people to pack their bags and leave."

Even on the road, militiamen in stolen cars continued to harass the fleeing population all the way to Salala, UNHCR said. Most of the people ended up for the night in one of the IDP camps there. This camp, Salala 1, was built for 7,000 people but is presently housing 30,000. The new influx could increase that number to over 80,000.

To improve security in the area, the West African peacekeeping troops inside Monrovia have agreed to send patrols all the way to Totota. Additional convoys of emergency aid have been planned for Friday and Saturday. At the same time, a temporary transit centre may be built in Salala or Kakata, further south towards Monrovia, where many people were seen heading.

Back in the capital, Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative and Coordinator of UN Operations in Liberia, Jacques Paul Klein, meet with a delegation from the Women in Peace-building Network Liberia (WIPNET). The women expressed their concern over the suffering of the population in areas where incidents of fighting have been reported over the past few days.

The leader of the delegation presented Mr. Klein with a petition calling on the UN to use every means to ensure that the warring parties adhered to the ceasefire. In their presence, Mr. Klein telephoned ECOMIL Force Commander Brigadier-General Okonkwo to relay the group's message and to ask ECOMIL to do what it could to ensure a secure environment in as wide an area as possible.

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