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As tensions mount, Ivorians make the trek to Liberia

By the CNN Wire Staff
Ivorian refugees wait for aid in Guinea last week.  Thousands have also fled to Liberia, according to the U.N.
Ivorian refugees wait for aid in Guinea last week. Thousands have also fled to Liberia, according to the U.N.
  • A few deaths have been reported, including a drowned child
  • Some people have slogged through the bush for days with little food
  • President Laurent Gbagbo won't step down, despite international calls to do so

(CNN) -- About 14,000 Ivory Coast residents escaping their country's political instability and violence have fled to eastern Liberia in what has been an arduous journey, the United Nations refugee agency said Saturday.

People are walking several hours or days before they get on barges to the rivers bordering the West African nations, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees said.

A few deaths have been reported among the refugees, including a child who drowned during the crossing of the Cestos River into Butuo. Observers are seeing malnourished children and people with malaria, respiratory infections and diarrhea.

"We are referring the most severe cases to Saclepea, a five-hour drive on very rough roads. In some locations without ambulances we are transferring the patients on board UNHCR vehicles," the agency said in a statement.

"Some are arriving with severely swollen feet, like a 75-year-old man whom we transferred from Butuo, one of the main entry points into Liberia. Some families said they had walked three to four days through the bush with little food."

The displacement is the fallout of the November 28 presidential runoff, after which the country's Independent Electoral Commission named opposition leader Alassane Ouattara the winner. But its Constitutional Council invalidated those results and declared that incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo won.

The country has been paralyzed by a political stalemate and scores of people have died in violence there. International powers, such as the United States, the United Nations, and the African Union have recognized Ouattara as the winner and are urging Gbagbo to cede power.

Leaders from the Economic Community of West African States on Friday warned they will not hesitate to use "legitimate force" to defuse the crisis if Gbagbo fails to step down.

Forces mounting against Gbagbo
Ivory Coast election crisis
  • Cote d'Ivoire
  • Liberia

The refugee agency said "humanitarian needs are increasing for the mostly women and children refugees as well as for the villagers hosting them" and the growing number of newcomers is affecting host communities.

The agency has so far registered 14,000 Ivorian refugees in eastern Liberia and has prepared supplies to help up to 30,000 refugees in the area.

"Food supplies are running short despite efforts by the government and humanitarian agencies to bring in more assistance," the agency said. "Our staff report that host community houses are full and congested. In the area of Butuo for example there are homes where 7 to 20 family members share a single room, while others sleep in corridors or on verandas."

The U.N refugee agency is concerned about reports that some members of the Forces Nouvelles "are preventing people from freely crossing into Liberia via the Loguato border crossing point." That group supports Ouattara.

"This is causing refugees from the Danane villages to deviate their route by up to 80 kilometers southward to enter Liberia. UNHCR is calling for the protection of civilians and respect for the right to seek asylum without hindrance."