From: UN New York, May 15 2003 07:00PM
© UN News Centre at http://www.un.org/news

The top United Nations humanitarian official in Liberia - a country caught in the grip of ongoing violence and civil unrest - today called on the Security Council to quickly reschedule a planned mission to the volatile West African region where hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people are "desperate" for help.

At a press briefing at UN Headquarters in New York, Ali Muktar Farah, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Liberia, called on the Security Council to undertake its mission to West Africa - which had been postponed earlier this week - as soon as possible and to convince Liberian President Charles Taylor to sit down with the rebels and agree to a ceasefire.

"If that does not happen, the conflict will escalate and engulf the capital, Monrovia, where half a million people today are in a desperate situation. It could also threaten the prevailing peace in next-door Sierra Leone," he warned.

At a time when the world's attention was focused on Iraq, the humanitarian and political situation in Liberia was getting desperate, Mr. Farah said. President Taylor was "mad" at the Security Council's extension of the sanctions against Liberia - which now also covered timber for 10 months. "He feels his hands are tied by the Council and he therefore cannot fight back against the rebels."

The conflict between the Liberian Government and rebels - mainly the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) in the north and west of the country - has spread to Monrovia, in the last two months, he said. There had also been fighting in the eastern part of the country, with a new group known as the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) spreading into the capital.

Mr. Farah said President Taylor did not want to deal with the Security Council and the UN - as demonstrated by his refusal to meet yesterday with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers (UNHCR) - and would rather deal with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and other African initiatives.

Meanwhile, in Monrovia on the third leg of a five-nation West Africa mission, Mr. Lubbers warned Liberian officials yesterday that the humanitarian situation in their country has "gone from bad to worse," as intensified fighting in recent months continued to paralyze humanitarian work and prevent Liberian refugees abroad from returning home. "I see the misery, it is simply overwhelming," he said.

The High Commissioner had been expected to meet with President Taylor, but the meeting did not materialize. Mr. Lubbers did however meet with several government officials in the country's capital and stressed that Liberia needed to make an immediate commitment to a political solution that will enable hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people to go home and rebuild their lives.

Fighting in 11 of Liberia's 15 counties has already displaced or threatens to displace nearly half of the country's 2.7 million people, UNHCR stated. Liberia currently has nearly 17,000 Sierra Leone refugees, over 38,000 Ivorian refugees and nearly 44,000 Liberians who returned home following the recent conflict in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire.

"Until there is a good political solution in Liberia, the humanitarian community will not be able to do its job properly," Mr. Lubbers stressed, urging the opposing sides to put a ceasefire in place as soon as possible. "Humanitarian access cannot wait - we need to help people now."

added by: Robert W. Kranz  May-2003