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UN refugee chief joins call for end to fighting in Liberia

22 July As the death toll mounts in the war-torn capital of Liberia, where the streets are jammed with thousands of displaced people, the United Nations top refugee official today joined Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call for an immediate end to the latest round of fighting between rebels and forces loyal to embattled President Charles Taylor.

Rudd Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has echoed the sentiments of the Secretary-General, who yesterday warned that Liberia is "poised between hope and disaster" and stressed that the prompt and urgent deployment of troops is needed to salvage the situation.

Amid reports of shelling and heavy loss of life, UNHCR is gravely concerned over the horrific situation and the fate of tens of thousands of displaced people and refugees now jamming the streets of Monrovia, a spokesman for the agency said during a press briefing in Geneva. Many terrified people are again seeking refuge in the UNHCR compound in the capital's Mamba Point district, including hundreds of Sierra Leonean refugees who have been awaiting emergency evacuation.

The agency has returned some 1,250 Sierra Leonean refugees home on the ship MV Overbeck since 4 July. But as serious fighting raged in the city's port area over the weekend, the ship was unable to dock safely and had to return empty to Freetown. Some 300 would-be returnees had been scheduled to make that trip. UNHCR estimated that there might be close to 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees sill in Monrovia.

Meanwhile, a day after a thunderous barrage of shells rained down on the city in the bloodiest fighting during the rebels' latest attempt to seize the capital that began two months ago, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) reported that hundreds of thousands of people have sought refuge in makeshift shelters across the city, leaving them without access to adequate food supplies and in urgent need of assistance.

The agency said it feared the situation is rapidly developing into a humanitarian catastrophe. "Thousands of people are crowded into churches, schools and other temporary shelters without running water or food. Many of them need help now, but as long as the fighting continues, there is no way that we can get supplies to them," said Gregory Blamoh, WFP's Officer-in-Charge in Monrovia.

The previous attacks on Monrovia have displaced around 200,000 people, many of who were too afraid to go home when the clashes subsided. WFP said that the latest battles have forced even more people to flee, with many heading east towards the airport. While it is extremely difficult to get an accurate idea of the number of people who have now been displaced, some estimates put the figure at over 300,000.

In the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Liberia, Marc Destanne de Bernis, voiced his deep concern regarding the desperate humanitarian situation in Liberia. Speaking at a press briefing, he said intense shelling and gunfire is causing widespread displacement within and outside Monrovia, in areas where there is inadequate shelter or means of survival, and that the Government has already reported over 600 deaths. "If fighting does not cease the death toll will continue to rise," he warned.

Relief agencies have not been able to access food supplies at the port and warehouses behind rebel lines to provide much needed assistance to the population, he noted. In addition, the extremely poor health and sanitation situation in Monrovia has lead to recent outbreaks of cholera, measles and malaria, which could be further intensified if not addressed and contained immediately.

Mr. Destanne de Bernis called on all the parties to the conflict to stop the fighting and observe the ceasefire, to respect international humanitarian law and ensure the protection of civilians and humanitarian workers. He also urged the international community to provide additional funding in order to strengthen the response to the humanitarian crisis.

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