A ship carrying about 160 exhausted Liberians, about half of them children, disembarked its passengers here Tuesday after being stranded at sea for more than three weeks and being turned away by three other West African countries.
At least 10 of the passengers, all desperately short of food and water, needed urgent medical attention, and two had to be carried off the Swedish cargo ship, the Alnar, on stretchers. Many on board said they had been drinking salt water to survive.
Officials of the port of Apapa and Red Cross workers gave the immigrants a meal of bread, sardines and rice. They were then put on buses to a refugee camp outside Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital.
Most of the passengers were Liberians who said they were fleeing fighting or persecution in their country, which has been racked by a simmering rebellion and is controlled by a warlord-turned-president, Charles Taylor. The vessel had been denied entry to Ghana, their initial destination, and also turned away from Togo and Benin.
"I want to live in peace. I came along with my entire family of seven," said John Zeigler Gbanyah, who said his home was close to Lofa County, the main theater of renewed fighting in Liberia.
A tired-looking University of Liberia student, Boima Paipwa, 21, said he wanted to escape persecution and conscription into the army. Six other students were on the vessel.
"The Liberian government is haunting students. The government has accused us of collaborating with dissidents, and we are being persecuted," he said.
Pachel Simpson, 20, also cited the fear of conscription and said he wants to continue his education in Ghana.
"Young boys are being forced into the army to fight the rebels. I did not want to go into the army," he said.
The Liberian government is currently battling a fresh rebel campaign in the north of the country, which was shattered by seven years of civil war in the 1990s.
The Alnar's Swedish captain, Henning Kielberg, who complained of not having had a bath for weeks, said some passengers had spent seven weeks on the aging vessel because Liberian officials had put them on board beginning May 9 after collecting money from those desperate to leave.
The Alnar sailed from the Liberian capital, Monrovia, on June 1.
"After negotiating for six days, they forced me--bribing a national security agent to force me--to leave, or they would put me in prison," Kielberg told reporters in the captain's cabin, saying he had told officials he did not want to make the journey.
Nigerian authorities were due to question Kielberg, inspect his ship for seaworthiness and check what else might be on board, officials said.
Echoing the legalistic criteria used by the U.N., Kielberg insisted that the passengers were not refugees because they had valid papers and were able to pay their fares.
He said the senior official who collected money from the passengers made sure they left Monrovia for fear he might be forced to refund the $75-per-head fare.
"So he bribed the security agents to force us out of the country and left us without food, without water, without anything," Kielberg said.
He said some of the original 250 people on board managed to slip into small boats and enter Ghana after authorities there had turned back the ship.
The Nigerian government said it was offering sanctuary to the Liberians on humanitarian grounds.