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Damaged Freighter With Liberian Refugees Back Out to Sea

May 10, 1996

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ A freighter overloaded with 4,000 Liberian refugees has been forced back to open waters despite concerns it is not seaworthy.

Ivory Coast officials, fearing a new flood of Liberian refugees on their soil, forced the ship back into the Atlantic about 10:30 p.m. Thursday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said today.

``We are very worried about the 4,000 Liberians on the boat,″ said agency spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume. ``The conditions on the boat are appalling. The boat is damaged.″

Berthiaume said Ivorian authorities also forced most of the women and children who had been taken from the ship for medical care and food to get back on. Ivorian authorities could not be reached for comment.

Fifty unaccompanied children and one elderly woman were allowed to remain at a refugee camp in the western port city of San Pedro, the United Nations said.

Panicked Liberians fleeing a month of brutal fighting in their capital, Monrovia, packed the Ghana-bound freighter on Sunday. Port officials said no more than 1,000 people should have been on board, though the boat owner has not confirmed that assessment. The ship, traveling on rough seas in hot weather, has no toilets or drinking water and no sleeping accommodations.

The Bulk Challenge limped into San Pedro on Monday, having taken on six feet of water. Some repairs were made to the ship Thursday but it was unclear whether the boat was seaworthy when it set sail again.

The United Nations’ refugee agency and World Food Program supplied the ship with rice, bread, sardines, plastic sheeting, buckets and soap before it left.

``The Ivorian authorities made it clear yesterday that none of the refugees could stay in the Ivory Coast, that all had to be put back on board,″ Berthiaume said. ``They are very, very frightened that the conflict in Liberia could spread.″

Steen Henson of the U.N. refugee agency in the Ivory Coast said the country was already flooded with 350,000 Liberian refugees who have fled across the border since Liberia’s civil war began six years ago.

Ivorian authorities told the United Nations they are afraid some of the refugees were among the combatants who have destroyed the Liberian capital in the past month.

The streets of Monrovia were quiet today as a powerful militia leader weighed an offer of temporary asylum from Nigeria.

Nigeria’s offer Thursday to faction leader Roosevelt Johnson came a day after West African leaders canceled an emergency summit on the Liberian crisis because few key figures showed up.

Johnson was ousted from Liberia’s government in March, and the governing council’s attempt to arrest him on murder charges provoked the violence in Monrovia. The militia leader, flown by the United States to Ghana last week to attend the conference, had no public response to the asylum offer.

But his possible departure raises hopes of at least a temporary halt to the bloodshed in Monrovia. If he accepts Nigeria’s offer, he would be expected to order his fighters to lay down their arms.

It was not immediately clear whether Johnson’s exile would satisfy his two main rivals, Charles Taylor and Alhaji Kromah, faction leaders who sit on the country’s six-man governing council. But Nigeria, Ghana and the United States have told the Liberian government that further military and economic aid hinges on the resuscitation of a 1995 peace accord.

More than 150,000 Liberians have died in six years of civil war, half the population of 2.9 million has been left homeless, and a half-dozen warring factions have emerged.

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