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 Friday, 17 January, 2003, 18:12 GMT
Liberians repatriated from Ivory Coast
Civilians man a checkpoint near the western town of Man
Thousands have fled the latest fighting
The first of some 40,000 Liberian refugees are being repatriated from Ivory Coast.

But a BBC correspondent at the border says the UN-led operations are expected to last much longer than planned.

Small canoes have to be used to take the refugees across the river that forms a boundary between the two countries after larger boats failed to materialise.

In Paris, peace talks to end four months of civil strife have continued despite renewed fighting in the west of the country, in breach of a ceasefire between the government and rebel groups.

I'd rather die at home than in a foreign land

Liberian refugee
It is the first time representatives of the government and the three rebel movements controlling half the country have all met face to face.

'Harassed'

Hundreds of Liberian refugees have been cramming onto ramshackle buses in the southern town of Tabou in a desperate bid to go home, says the BBC's Tom McKinley.

Meagre bundles of possessions are all these people have left after fleeing fighting in western Ivory Coast.

Open in new window : Ivory Coast
Click here for pictures of the conflict

Thousands of Liberian refugees have been fleeing the fighting in western Ivory Coast over the last two months by going south to the town of Tabou.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, has now launched its first large-scale repatriation scheme and some 2,000 Liberians are expected to go home over the next couple of weeks.

Our correspondent says that the Liberians are very keen to leave, although Liberia, which many left a decade ago, is still in turmoil.

"I'd rather die at home than in a foreign land," he quotes one of the refugees as saying.

Many have been harassed or intimidated in Tabou, the UNHCR says.

Locals have accused the Liberian refugees of siding with the two rebels groups which control the west of Ivory Coast, the MJP and the Mpigo.

The Ivorian Government also says that Liberians are fighting with the rebels.

Last month, the UNHCR had contemplated moving the refugees to the south of Ivory Coast, but the government had refused for security reasons.

Ceasefire breach

The repatriation operation kicks off amid reports of fresh fighting in the region.

Ivorian Defence Minister Kadet Bertin said on Thursday that western rebel factions had attacked government positions in the town of Blolequin.

But MJP and Mpigo rebels have in turn accused the government forces of attacking them.

Our correspondent says that although the French, who are monitoring the ceasefire, have described the incident in Blolequin as insignificant, technically, it amounts to a breach of the ceasefire signed in Togo last week.

Heavy artillery could also be heard from the town of Toulepleu, causing panic among residents across the nearby border in Liberia.

Rebel leaders Guillaume Soro (left) and Felix Doh (right)
The rebels are staying in Paris in spite of the fighting

The repatriation scheme gets under way as the UN's special envoy in Ivory Coast warns that the situation is deteriorating rapidly.

The envoy, Caroline McAskie told the BBC that even if the war were resolved immediately, it would take the region up to 10 years to recover.

More than a million people are estimated to have been displaced by the fighting which broke out between government forces and rebel groups last September.

Peace talks

The talks in Paris were briefly interrupted following reports of fighting, with each side blaming each other for the clashes, but continued later without problem.

The BBC's West Africa correspondent Paul Welsh, who is in Paris, describes the mood of the talks as good.

Delegates have already discussed the most sensitive subject - the definition of an Ivory Coast citizen.

The rebels say they are fighting for equality and justice for all, for those who they say have been robbed of their rights by the nationality laws.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Paul Welsh reports from Paris
"In the Ivory Coast, they wait for results from almost 5,000 miles away"

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08 Jan 03 | Africa
05 Jan 03 | Africa
10 Jan 03 | Africa
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