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Guinea-Bissau: fighting breaks out again

Briefing Notes, 7 May 1999

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Kris Janowski to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 7 May 1999, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR staff in the west African nation of Guinea-Bissau last night reported that fighting had again broken out between forces loyal to president Vieira and the military junta. Battles have restarted this morning at 6 a.m., with heavy artillery and automatic weapons fire heard in Bissau, the capital.

This morning, UNHCR staff reported that civilians could already be seen leaving Bissau. Most of the population of 300,000 had been chased from the city last year when a conflict began in June between the president's forces and those loyal to the former army chief of staff. Following political agreements that put an end to several rounds of fighting, the majority had returned.

UNHCR staff report that rebellious units in the army have this morning asked all foreigners to leave the country immediately. Several hundred west African peace keepers, charged with overseeing a transition to a new government, have also reportedly been told to quit Guinea-Bissau.

During the conflict last year, up to 400,000 people were displaced within the country. The situation of those who have returned to their homes is still very precarious and UNHCR is concerned by possible new displacements and an exodus to neighbouring countries.

Several thousand refugees fled the country last year. UNHCR is still caring for around 900 refugees in Senegal, 720 in the Gambia, 600 in Cape Verde and 1,800 in Guinea (Conakry).

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Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

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