UNHCR urges Ivory Coast govt to stop recruiting Liberians into army

©2003 Agence France Press (AFP)

GENEVA, Jan 10 (AFP)  - The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has urged the government of Ivory Coast to stop recruiting Liberian refugees into the ranks of loyalist forces, a UNHCR spokesman said on Friday.

Kris Janowski, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the agency had written to the Ivorian government after "persistent reports" that it was recruiting refugees to the army, although they had no exact figures of how many had been enrolled.

"It's not a question of mercenaries -- it's basically the government recruiting people to fight in the loyalist military, not as mercenaries, but basically as soldiers," he told reporters.

He said it was "certainly against various parts of international refugee law to recruit refugees to fight in national armies".

And he said the move compounded other problems facing tens of thousands of Liberian refugees in war-torn Ivory Coast, including harassment and intimidation at checkpoints.

In the letter to the Ivorian government, the Geneva-based UN agency also appealed for the authorities to instruct Ivorian youth groups controlling checkpoints to allow Liberians fleeing the four- month-old conflict to pass through.

"We essentially think that the government should do more to dispel the notion, which is increasingly commonplace in Ivory Coast, that all Liberians are somehow linked to the rebellion, because in fact they are not," Janowski told reporters.

Liberian refugees are particularly vulnerable in Ivory Coast, having already fled a conflict in their own country, UNHCR said.

"I'm not saying they were forced into recruitment, but even if they were not forced, it's, from our point of view, questionable," Janowski said.

"These people are terrified, they are nervous about what's going on, so completely voluntary decision under these circumstances is virtually impossible," he said.

UNHCR also said there were reports of "large population movements" out of Tabou, on the southwestern coast, this week after rebels took control of the nearby town of Grabo.

Hundreds of Liberian refugees took shelter in a UNHCR compound and a Catholic mission, while more than 6,000 Liberians also fled back to Liberia, it said.

Talks are due to take place next week in Paris to try to end the conflict between rebel groups and government forces, which broke out on September 19.

AFP-Jan 10, 2003

© Robert W. Kranz  09-02-2002