BUTUO, Liberia (AP) – U.N. peacekeepers and the World Food Program will launch emergency airlifts Saturday to Liberia’s border with Ivory Coast, where impassable roads are blocking desperately needed food for thousands of refugees fleeing what they say are growing clashes.

About 19,000 Ivory Coast civilians have crossed into Liberia, local U.N. officials said, with the most dramatic influx in recent days.

“Here is safe, there is no doubt about it,” said Mangou Mansuo, warming himself at dawn by a fire after the sound of gunfire near his Ivory Coast town sent him fleeing across the border on Thursday.

“Our problem now is hunger,” Mansuo said.

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 Ivory Coast’s government-held south, pitting President Laurent Gbagbo’s loyalists against foreigners and members of other ethnic groups.

In Ivory Coast’s commercial capital of Abidjan, the hard-line commander behind the air campaign took over Friday as the new military chief, replacing a popular moderate fired by Gbagbo last weekend.

“I am not a warmonger,” Col. Maj. Philippe Mangou said at a swearing-in ceremony. He said he wanted to “reassure all the communities living in Ivory Coast.”

Despite the return of calm in Abidjan, growing numbers of Ivory Coast’s western residents are fleeing to Liberia – some with accounts of government troops trying to force them into fighting, or rebels trying to block their flight.

“We could not stand the sounds” of shooting, Gbor O’Zaline, who fled her Ivory Coast town of Gartuo, told The Associated Press during the first visit by a journalist to the border.

“Our hearts could not lead us elsewhere but Liberia,” O’Zaline said, speaking in the local language used on both sides of the border.

“If the war continues, we too will continue to be here,” the middle-aged Ivorian woman said.

The U.N. World Food Program began trucking 198 tons of food – mainly wheat and vegetable oil – toward the border in the early days of Ivory Coast’s latest crisis, preparing for a refugee outflow.

Bad roads kept trucks from reaching any area closer than a four-hour drive to the border, the food program said.

Aid agencies generally avoid providing aid to refugees directly on borders, fearing it will encourage the flow of fighters and civilians from a hotspot.

But growing hunger at Butuo, less than two miles from the Ivory Coast border, left aid agencies with no other immediate option, said Justin Bagirishya, World Food Program country director.

U.N. troops will help fly in 20 tons of food to Butuo, starting Saturday, he said. The peacekeepers here are part of a 15,000-strong U.N. peace force, helping cement a 2003 peace deal in Liberia’s own 1990s civil wars.

For now, residents of Butuo are opening their homes to the refugees, as much as possible.

“They come with nothing in their pockets,” said Liberian Joseph Gbeadeah, who since Nov. 5 has ferried thousands of refugees across the Cestos River border on his pulley-operated raft.

“We don’t charge them a penny,” Gbeadeah said, pulling the raft along with a team of volunteers. “We do this for humanity.”

AP-ES-11-19-04 1054EST

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