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Brief respite for Liberian exiles

Takoradi - Thousands of Liberian war refugees, many sick after a week at sea, were brought ashore from a crippled freighter yesterday and put in heavily-guarded quayside tents at this Ghanaian port, witnesses said.

"They have all been brought down and kept in tents which were erected on the quay yesterday. The military are everywhere," said a witness.

Nearly 4,000 passengers fleeing violence and anarchy in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, are unwanted by the country's neighbours who say they are fed up with its six-year-old civil war and refugee problem.

The refugees' respite ashore is likely to be only temporary - just long enough for repairs to be carried out to the vessel.

As the passengers, including hundreds of women and children, left the rusting Nigerian freighter Bulk Challenge, Ghana made clear in a statement that it was sticking to its decision not to admit the refugees.

It cited the need to avoid undermining decisions taken last week on halting renewed civil war in Liberia by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) of which Ghana holds the rotating presidency.

"Care must be taken in order not to create a panic situation in Monrovia which will unduly generate more exodus of Liberians into neighbouring countries which are already saddled with playing host to hundreds of thousands of Liberian refugees," the Foreign Ministry statement said.

"The vessel which is anchored just outside the harbour will be expected to set sail for Monrovia or wherever the captain would decide," it added.

Ivory Coast, saying hundreds of the passengers were Liberian gunmen, forced the Bulk Challenge back to sea last Thursday after emergency repairs.

Sierra Leone has blocked another vessel, the fishing boat Victory Reefer, with 700 refugees off Freetown.

There were also signs yesterday of international anger at the treatment of the Liberian refugees, particularly the freighter passengers - many of them sick, suffering diarrhoea and packed together on board with only one toilet.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadaka Ogata, pleaded: "Unless the door is open to them, a lot of people, many of them women and children, may die." She said the UNHCR was prepared to help countries that grant asylum to the Liberians.

Emma Bonino, the European Union's humanitarian affairs commissioner, said: "I am deeply shocked at the sight of thousands of helpless and hopeless civilians who are being sent from one port to another, and denied the right to proper refuge and assistance."

The commission said its European Community Humanitarian Office would provide emergency assistance to refugees and money for the few aid agencies still operating in Liberia. It did not say how much it would give.

A witness said more than 200 soldiers of the African Ecomog peace- keeping force stationed in Liberia were among the passengers. In Monrovia Ecomog chief of staff, Brigadier-Gabriel Anyankpele, confirmed that soldiers were on board and the shooting incident on Sunday in which two passengers died.