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Security concerns force UN refugee agency to suspend operations in Côte d'Ivoire

Security concerns force UN refugee agency to suspend operations in Côte d'Ivoire

Liberian refugees at UNHCR compound in Tabou
Violent protests in Abidjan over a proposed peace accord and the general climate of insecurity in Côte d'Ivoire have forced the United Nations refugee agency to suspend all its operations in the country.

The French-brokered accord reached last week, which calls upon the government, rebels and political opposition to share power in a transitional government until elections in 2005, has sparked a series of violent protests and demonstrations that have rocked Abidjan since Saturday.

A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced the precautionary measure today, saying security concerns have forced the agency's staff to temporarily put all operations on hold, including a repatriation movement that has so far sent some 900 Liberians home from the southwest.

Despite the temporary suspension, Liberians in the area are still coming forward to register with UNHCR for help to return home. The agency estimates that up to 40,000 Liberian refugees still remain in the volatile western region of Côte d'Ivoire, including more than 5,000 in Nicla camp who cannot return home due to their ethnic background and known opposition to the Liberian Government.

Concluding her 11-day mission to the West Africa region last Saturday, UNHCR's Deputy High Commissioner Mary Ann Wyrsch said that the agency had so far received little regional assistance in finding other solutions, such as alternative sites in the region for Liberian refugees stranded in western Côte d'Ivoire.

Ms. Wyrsch expressed her concern that even vulnerable refugees have become targets in Côte d'Ivoire, where, until recently, they were welcome members of the local community. "It is the responsibility of the Ivorian Government to protect them as well," she said, appealing to the Ivorian people to make the distinction between refugees and rebels. "Refugees are vulnerable and in need of help," she said.

Meanwhile, Carolyn McAskie, the Secretary-General's Humanitarian Envoy for the crisis in Côte d'Ivoire, remained in Abidjan today. She is meeting with UN agencies to discuss ways to strengthen the coordination of humanitarian assistance.