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Second Refugee Ship Anchors Off Coast of West Africa

May 12, 1996

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ A second ship teeming with sick and hungry people fleeing the fighting in Liberia sought a West African port of refuge Saturday, as authorities determined whether to let them ashore.

More than 1,300 refugees were on the merchant vessel Victory Reefer, which anchored 10 miles off Freetown, Sierra Leone, about 250 miles northwest of the Liberian capital of Monrovia.

They were largely citizens of Sierra Leone, unlike the Liberian refugees aboard the leaky Bulk Challenge, which was off Ghana and about 600 miles east of Monrovia.

When the Challenge attempts to dock, the captain may be forced once again to limp back out to sea.

Like the Ivory Coast authorities who turned away the freighter that left the embattled Liberian capital a week ago, Ghana wants little to do with the 3,000 to 4,000 refugees on board the craft, some of whom are suffering from severe diarrhea.

Medical workers fear the diarrhea outbreak is a sign of cholera, which is often fatal if not immediately treated.

``We don’t want to take any more refugees,″ Ghanaian Foreign Minister Obed Asamoah said Saturday. He expressed concern that many of the refugees on the Bulk Challenge were faction fighters responsible for destroying the Liberian capital Monrovia in a month of bloodshed and vandalism.

``We have had enough refugees,″ he said. ``Especially we don’t want those who are combatants.″

Ghanaian authorities will board the boat when it arrives sometime this weekend to screen refugees who have medical needs, but the others will be forced to remain on board. He said Ghanaians, foreigners and Liberian workers for United Nations and relief agencies would be allowed to disembark.

A decision on whether to allow the Victory Reefer to dock at Freetown would also have to wait until it was determined if any of the passengers were armed Liberian fighters, Liberian naval sources said.

The Sierra Leone navy brought food and medical supplies to the Victory Reefer, saying on their return that sanitary conditions were appalling and food and medical supplies were very low.

Although they were told there were 1,152 Sierra Leoneans, 61 U.N. personnel and 121 people of other nationalities on the ship, the actual total seemed to be considerably higher, the naval sources said.

Phil Doherty, head of the Liberian mission for Doctors Without Borders, said the relief agency had sent a small boat with a doctor and nurse to follow the Bulk Challenge to Ghana, and would demand that a doctor be allowed to help with the medical screenings.

He said there was little water or food on the freighter and only one toilet. The refugees, he said, had been reduced to drinking sea water.

``If there is cholera on board, under those circumstances, those people have a very poor expectancy,″ Doherty said. Cholera bacteria spreads rapidly through contaminated food and water, and causes severe diarrhea, vomiting and muscle cramps.

Charles Taylor, head of one of Liberia’s main warring factions and member of the ruling Council of State, said Saturday the refugees would be returned to Monrovia and taken to rural towns. But he did not say how.

Panicked Liberians fleeing a month of brutal fighting in Monrovia packed the Ghana-bound freighter on May 4. The ship limped into San Pedro in Ivory Coast on Monday, having taken on 6 feet of water.

Some repairs were made Thursday, but relief officials did not feel it was seaworthy when it was forced to set sail that night.

Ivory Coast has already been flooded with 350,000 Liberians who have fled across the border since Taylor launched the war six years ago. Tens of thousands of Liberians live in refugee camps in Ghana and other West African countries.

In Liberia, the U.N. World Food Program said there were 165,000 people stranded outside the embattled capital. The U.N. relief agency said it had sent a ship with tons of food to the southern port city of Buchanan.

A cease-fire called by West African leaders last week appeared to have taken hold in Monrovia, although hundreds of people trying to return to their homes turned back when they were fired at as they attempted to cross the two main bridges into the city center.

The West African leaders also called for the reinstatement of Taylor’s archrival, Roosevelt Johnson, to his Cabinet minister post, but Taylor would not say Saturday whether he would accept Johnson back into his government.

Johnson was ousted in March, and the governing council’s attempt to arrest him April 6 on murder charges related to violations of an August 1995 peace accord provoked the past month of violence.

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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