Côte d'Ivoire: UNHCR plans to evacuate thousands of refugees

Côte d'Ivoire: UNHCR plans to evacuate thousands of refugees

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The United Nations refugee agency today announced plans to evacuate thousands of refugees from the Danané region of conflict-torn western Côte d'Ivoire.

UNHCR is urgently looking at the feasibility of various options to evacuate thousands of refugees from western Côte d'Ivoire, including emergency repatriation to Liberia and/or temporary settlement in a third West African country. A spokesman for the Geneva-based agency said the plans would be executed "once security and logistical arrangements can be worked out."

Evacuation plans suffered a major setback on Sunday when a UNHCR ferry was damaged by hand grenades detonated by government forces. The ferry had been used in the past for the repatriation of Liberian refugees across the Cavaly River to the town of Pelebo in Liberia.

UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski indicated that the agency was "told that the ferry was destroyed to prevent potential future intrusion of rebels into Côte d'Ivoire." Voicing concern about the incident, he said it "affects the ability of UN agencies to operate in a climate of safety and respect for the UN property guaranteed various international agreements."

As fighting spread over the weekend, more than 6,000 additional people sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Over 36,000 refugees have now left the troubled country since violence erupted on 28 November. Of these, at least 22,000 are Liberians forced by the fighting to return to their own war-ravaged country. An estimated 4,000 people have also fled to Guinea, while over 2,500 refugees remain in Abidjan.

The UN refugee agency describes the situation as "extremely volatile," with an increasing number of Ivorian nationals as well as Liberian refugees being forced to flee. "Crossing the border is also becoming harder by the day as fighting gets more brutal," UNHCR Representative in Liberia Moses Okello warned.

Noting that the agency is now "running three different special operations in this part of West Africa," he predicted that if the crisis worsens, it would have to further boost capacity there.