U.N. helicopters escorted by peacekeepers flew the first food aid Sunday to this Liberian border town overwhelmed by thousands of refugees fleeing turmoil in neighboring Ivory Coast.
Children swarmed aboard the helicopters, setting down in a soccer field, before the blades even stopped turning, desperate to get at the grain, oil and beans inside.
Butuo, just two miles from the border, has received the largest share of what local U.N. officials say are 19,000 refugees crossing from Ivory Coast.
The influx started after Nov. 4, when Ivory Coast — the world’s top cocoa producer and west Africa’s economic anchor — reopened its 2-year-old civil war with bombing raids on its rebel-held north.
A Nov. 6 airstrike killed nine French peacekeepers and an American, prompting immediate French destruction of Ivory Coast’s tiny air force. Clashes erupted in much of the government-held south, pitting President Laurent Gbagbo’s loyalists against foreigners and members of other ethnic groups.
As the refugee crossings into Liberia continued Sunday, local people were emptying their own food stocks to feed hungry, exhausted newcomers, said a local official, Albert Farnga.
Villagers have been reduced to stripping rice out of the fields before it was ready for harvest “to save our brothers and sisters,” Farnga said.
Refugees say they fled across the river border when gunfire sounded near their towns or when government troops tried to force civilian men into their ranks.
Bangladeshi U.N. troops flew in with at least one of about four helicopters full of food Sunday.
Fifty tons of emergency supplies were expected to land by Monday.
U.N. officials would verify each potential recipient’s refugee status before starting to hand out food, said Luca Curci, a U.N. worker helping oversee the airlift.
Hungry refugees waited.
“It is good food has come,” said Kieh Yoland, 27, whose 2-month-old baby was strapped to her back. “I am happy. We have no money to survive here.”