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U.N.: Liberia refugee crisis grave

Aid agencies say food is in short supply and the threat of disease is growing.
Aid agencies say food is in short supply and the threat of disease is growing.

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The U.S. blames rebel forces for the relentless bloodshed in Monrovia.
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Liberians stacked corpses outside the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia.
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GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) -- The United Nations' refugee agency Friday called conditions in Liberia "grave" and is urging the immediate deployment of a peacekeeping force to the West African country.

Advancing rebels trying to overthrow President Charles Taylor have been fighting fierce battles with government troops in the besieged capital of Monrovia.

"We understand that Nigeria is now considering deployment of some of its troops currently serving in UNAMSIL (the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone). We hope something is done soon because hundreds of thousands of people are in grave danger in Liberia and we need to do something now," the agency said in a statement.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' compound in Monrovia "is now jammed with more than 800 desperate and hungry refugees and displaced. Every available space is taken in the compound, which has also been hit by stray gunfire.

"Fortunately, those crowded there have so far escaped injury. Even members of our own staff are now displaced, with three of them reporting yesterday that they had lost everything but the clothes on their backs after their homes were looted," the agency said.

Since last week, the agency has not been able "to make any contact with thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees who were in Samukai and Banjor camps on the outskirts of the capital."

"The fate of thousands of displaced people in other parts of the country also remains unknown. They have been without basic assistance for months following the suspension of most aid operations because of insecurity."

In the UNHCR compound, there are more than 600 Sierra Leonean refugees who fled other refugee camps and at least 160 Liberians and people from other West African nations.

"Many of them fled into the UNHCR premises on Monday after a mortar shell hit the nearby U.S. residential compound, killing and wounding scores of people. Two more people were reported killed in the area on Wednesday."

Many of the 15,000 Sierra Leoneans living in camps around the capital had been "awaiting evacuation" in a UNHCR sealift, but the hostilities prevented the MV Overbeck ship to dock safely in Monrovia and had to return empty Monday to Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital.

"As soon as the security situation allows, UNHCR international staff will return to Monrovia and the Overbeck will resume the emergency evacuation of Sierra Leoneans." The Overbeck so far has evacuated 1,250 Sierra Leonean refugees in four voyages.

The agency is recommending to governments that they suspend the forced return of rejected Liberian asylum-seekers for at least six months. Canada announced such a suspension Wednesday.

"We are also asking governments within the West African region to continue to recognize Liberians as refugees as provided for under the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention, which they have all signed."

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