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LIBERIA-IVORIANS Mar-11-2011 (500 words) xxxi

Liberians fear spillover of violence as Ivorians seek refuge

By Bronwen Dachs
Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- Liberians fear a spillover of violence from Ivory Coast as tens of thousands of Ivorians fleeing political tensions at home seek refuge in neighboring countries, said a church worker in Liberia's Gbarnga Diocese.

As more refugees cross the border into Liberia, "there is concern that among them are supporters of either side who want to consolidate their position from here," said Manuel Bangalie, who works for the diocesan justice and peace commission. "We don't know their intentions."

Bangalie told Catholic News Service in a March 11 telephone interview from Gbarnga that a team of five people from the diocese, Caritas and the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services visited the border areas in Liberia's Nimba County early in March to assess the needs of the refugees,

They found a vast increase in the number of refugees since visiting the area in January, "because the tension has intensified" in Ivory Coast, he said, noting that an estimated 3,000 refugees are in the county.

The United Nations fears Ivory Coast's increasingly bloody postelectoral crisis, resulting from presidential incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refusing to leave office after Alassane Ouattara was declared the winner of Nov. 28 elections, could become a full-blown civil war. More than 1,000 civilians have been killed since the beginning of December.

Bangalie said the church backs the Liberian government's plan to expand refugee camps at the border and is involved in plans to "provide more accommodation, food and maternal health facilities." He said the assessment team found that most refugees at the border are women and children.

Many refugees have made their way to the city of Gbarnga and "residents are finding it difficult to provide the necessary accommodation and food for the influx of people," Bangalie said.

Locals are "trying to manage and make the refugees feel at home," he said, noting that during Liberia's civil war its refugees were accommodated in Ivory Coast "and now is our chance to reciprocate."

About 250,000 people were killed in Liberia's civil war, which ended in 2003.

"People here know how civil war feels," Bangalie added.

The new migrants have a "slim chance of employment" as their needs for "shelter, food and health care need to be met first," he said. Those who do find work will be self-employed, such as trading goods at the roadside, he said.

Bangalie noted the language barrier between English-speaking Liberians and French-speaking refugees from neighboring Ivory Coast.

African church leaders have urged a strong role for religious officials, including the Ivorian bishops' conference, in mediating the impasse in Ivory Coast.

In mid-February, a delegation African religious leaders, including Catholics, traveled to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to meet with the two men claiming to be president.

The delegation urged that a "platform be created by African political and religious leaders for sincere and frank dialogue" between Ouattara and Gbagbo in order "to find a peaceful and lasting solution to the political crisis," said a statement from the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar.


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