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Liberian Refugees Allowed to Disembark in Ghana

May 14, 1996

TAKORADI, Ghana (AP) _ Thousands of tired and hungry Liberian war refugees were finally allowed today to leave a rusty freighter that had been stranded at sea for 10 days.

Some 3,000 to 4,000 refugees, desperate to end what a U.N. spokesman described as a ``voyage of the damned,″ disembarked in the western Ghanaian port of Takoradi. Ghana, already burdened by tens of thousands of refugees from Liberia’s civil war, had twice rejected the refugees’ appeal for asylum.

The Liberians will be transferred to a temporary UNICEF camp for medical treatment, agency spokeswoman Margherita Amodeo said in Geneva. Many of them were suffering from diarrhea and other ailments.

It was not clear how long they would be allowed to stay.

Ken Williams, UNICEF representative in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, said the United Nations had food, shelter, medicine, oral rehydration salts and intravenous fluids ready for the refugees.

Ghana had forced the ship back out to sea twice since Sunday, but Deputy Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibn Chambas said his government called the Bulk Challenge back after meeting with U.N. and health officials.

For 10 days, the leading, overcrowded ship had sailed in search of a West African haven for the refugees.

First, officials in the Ivory Coast forced them back to sea after allowing the leaking ship to dock for repairs. The reception had been no warmer in Ghana.

Today, for the third time, the Bulk Challenge limped into Takoradi, where it had been rebuffed, then allowed to dock for supplies, then forced out again twice.

The Bulk Challenge had spent several hours Monday in Takoradi, but authorities let only eight seriously ill people ashore and ordered the ship back to sea.

As it set off Monday evening, some 250 people jumped 10 feet from the teeming deck to two small barges that had been used for medical examinations, witnesses said. Authorities let them ashore.

P.S. Adamu, a Ghanaian official who went aboard, said the ship’s Nigerian captain was forcing sick and hungry passengers to pay for food that international relief agencies had donated.

``The people said he is wickedly exploiting them,″ Adamu said.

The ship left the port about 8 p.m. Monday, its destination unclear. This morning, it inched back to Takoradi.

In the Liberian capital, Monrovia, 3,000 people scrambled Monday to board a freighter bound for Guinea. Fighting broke out among people desperate to buy $70 tickets _ a huge sum for most Liberians. African peacekeepers beat them with belts and batons.

``We will enter the port at all costs,″ cried one woman carrying an overstuffed suitcase.

It was not known whether that ship had been authorized to make port outside Liberia. The Bulk Challenge had sought a place to leave its passengers since May 5.

The United Nations pleaded Monday with West African leaders to offer refuge to the Liberians, who fled renewed fighting that has ravaged their capital since April 6.

``Unless the door is opened to them, a lot of people, many of them women and children, may die,″ said U.N. High Commissioner Sadako Ogata.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the United States believes Ghana and the Ivory Coast should assist the refugees.

``They deserve the assistance of the international community,″ he said.

But both of those countries are fed up with harboring Liberians who have fled their country’s civil war. Ivory Coast is already flooded with 350,000 Liberians.

Heavy fighting broke out in Monrovia early today, apparently started by fighters loyal to warlord Charles Taylor.

Just two days ago, Taylor’s radio station had announced a new campaign to end fighting in the capital, including the withdrawal of his fighters.

But before dawn today, Taylor’s men fanned across the city in a fierce assault on fighters loyal to his bitter enemy Roosevelt Johnson. Johnson’s rebels appeared to have the upper hand by mid-morning and some Taylor fighters sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy compound.

The U.S. Embassy radioed a warning to employees to use ``extreme caution″ when walking around the compound.

The streets of Monrovia had been fairly quiet over the past few days.

Update hourly