Thousands flee fighting in eastern Liberia

Fighting that erupted on Friday in Toe Town, site of a refugee transit camp in eastern Liberia, sent more than 2,500 Ivorians, third-country nationals and locals fleeing in different directions, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Monday.

It was the second time that the refugees were being displaced since they had just fled an armed conflict in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire, the agency said in a news release on Monday.

"Citizens from Toe Town and few Ivorian refugees arrived in Zwedru [to the north] over the weekend and told UNHCR field staff that the town was partly burned and deserted, with bodies lying in the streets," UNHCR's Emergency Coordinator Jo Hegenauer said. "We have no information on the state of our transit centre so far."

The transit centre was established by UNHCR in December 2002 for some 2,500 people of various nationalities fleeing the conflict in western Cote d'Ivoire.

"This development is a very serious one not only for Liberia but also for UNHCR operations in this part of the world," the statement quoted Moses Okello, UNHCR Representative in Liberia as saying. "UNHCR has assisted close to 100,000 persons who have fled the Ivorian conflict since mid-November, but now even this relative 'safe haven' inside Liberia is coming under attack, forcing thousands of people to flee again," he added.

The Liberian government sent reinforcement over the weekend to regain control of the area. On Monday government forces said they controlled the town, but the situation along the highway and in surrounding areas were still reportedly very volatile, the agency noted.

Since fighting spread to western Cote d'Ivoire last November, UNHCR has assisted about 40,000 Ivorians, 45,000 Liberian refugees and 13,000 third-country nationals - mainly Malians and Burkinabe - forced to flee to eastern Liberia.

Meanwhile, the United States government has contributed an additional US $50 million to UNHCR's 2003 annual programmes, US $35 million of which will be used in Africa, the office of the spokesman for the State Department said on Friday.