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Liberian refugees returning to area hardest-hit

Liberian refugees start returning to area hardest-hit by civil war, UN reports

In a vote of confidence for Liberia's peace process, refugees have begun returning home to Lofa county, the hardest-hit area during the West African country's 14-year civil war, with the largest-scale displacement, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.

In an operation assisted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a first convoy of 140 Liberians left Guinea's Kouankan camp for Voinjama, the main town in Lofa in northern Liberia, less than three weeks after the Government declared the area, the last place to end fighting and demobilize after the 2003 peace accords, safe for returns.

About 34 per cent of the estimated 340,000 Liberian refugees in neighbouring countries and the majority of the half million internally displaced persons (IDPs) are expected to return to Lofa county. Some 100,000 refugees are expected to return to Liberia this year.

"The start of repatriation to Lofa is yet another indication of the achievements made in returning peace to Liberia," UNHCR country representative Moses Okello said at a ceremony at the Guinean-Liberian border.

"Lofa is strategic in Liberia's economy, being the largest food-producing county. As such, return to the area also means a boost in farming activity," he added.

UNHCR has facilitated the return of some 7,200 refugees since the voluntary repatriation operation started last October. Overland convoys arrive on a regular basis from Sierra Leone and Guinea while repatriation by sea and air are organized from Ghana and Nigeria. Another estimated 100,000 Liberian refugees returned on their own in 2004.

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