Liberian refugees stranded at sea

Abidjan (Reuter) - Thousands of Liberian civil war refugees on an old freighter faced uncertainty at sea yesterday as Ivory Coast rejected appeals to take them in.

Ivory Coast said about half the estimated 4,000 people on the Bulk Challenge were guerrillas and forced the Nigerian freighter back to sea from San Pedro port after urgent repairs. Ghana prepared to receive the refugees but the exact position of the vessel was unclear 12 hours after it put to sea. Port officials in Ghana said they were expecting the vessel in Tema, near Accra, but had had no word from the captain since he put to sea. "We have had no word. I have just spoken to the control room and there is no word," ports authority spokes-man Anthony Cudjoe said, adding that the vessel, Bulk Challenge, may have anchored at sea with further problems.

The Interior Minister, Emile Bombet, defended the decision to force the vessel to leave San Pedro port on Thursday night, two days after it limped to port with two metres of water in the hold. "There are 2,065 people on the boat who are rebels," he said, adding that there was no question of allowing the passengers to disembark at any Ivorian port. He added that the United States was putting pressure on his government to accept the passengers, ignoring that Ivory Coast already hosted more than 300,000 Liberian war refugees.

The Ghanaian representative of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said arrangements had been completed to receive the refugees.

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