MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Liberian security forces sent 14 registered refugees from Ivory Coast back to their home country, violating international law, United Nations officials said Tuesday.
The men were among a group of 23 suspects arrested in southeastern Liberia, said Khassim Diagne, the U.N. refugee agency's representative in Liberia.
Diagne said he did not know why the suspects were arrested, though local media reports have said they were accused of involvement in cross-border raids that have plagued the largely unpoliced border region in recent years.
The Ivorians were then shipped across the Cavally River into Ivory Coast on Sunday night, though the agency was not informed, Diagne said.
Security forces shipped them back to Ivory Coast on a vessel belonging to the refugee agency, said a U.N. source in the area who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press.
An untold number of Ivorian fighters fled into Liberia along with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing violence that followed disputed elections in November 2010.
Many of the fighters who fled were supporters of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the election but refused to step down, triggering months of violence that claimed more than 3,000 lives.
Security forces under current President Alassane Ouattara have been accused by groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of torturing Gbagbo supporters, and Diagne said the U.N. is concerned about how the refugees might be treated in Ivorian custody.
"We fear for the worst because if these allegations (of cross-border violence) are taken seriously, who knows?" Diagne said.
He said the U.N. had complained to Liberian officials about the move, saying the men were entitled to their day in court before being forced back to Ivory Coast.
"These are registered refugees who were recognized by the government of Liberia, given protection and assistance for a number of years and all of a sudden sent back without the due process of law taking place," he said.
Liberia's government spokesman and acting justice minister both said Tuesday they were unaware of the incident.
"That's news to me," Information Minister Lewis Brown said.
Ivory Coast's government spokesman and interior ministry could not be reached for comment.
More than 50,000 Ivorian refugees who fled during the 2010-11 conflict remain on Liberian soil, and Diagne said the recent case of forced repatriation would undermine attempts to convince them to go home.
Associated Press writer Marc-Andre Boisvert contributed reporting from Abidjan, Ivory Coast.