18 July 2013

Liberia: Border Calm

In the wake of intense ethnic crisis along the border with neighboring Guinea where report say 16 persons have been killed, police in Monrovia have assured that the Liberian side of the border remains calm.

Foreign media reports say at least 16 people have been burned alive or hacked to death with machetes, and dozens got wounded during two days of ethnic clashes in the western part of Guinea bordering Nimba County.

The police assurance comes in the wake of rumors that Liberians residing along the border had begun fleeing deep into Nimba County that is adjacent to Guinean border village that is the epicenter of the violence.

"I just finished talking with our commanders in Nimba County and they told me they have not seen any semblance of people running from the border. The border is calm," police spokesman Sam Collins told this paper in an exclusive interview.

The violence broke out in Guinea's southern Forest Region early Monday when petrol station guards from the Guerze (Kpelle) ethnic group in the town of Koule beat to death an ethnic Konianke youth they had accused of stealing.

Fighting spontaneously spread to the nearby provincial capital N'Zerekore, 570 km (350 miles) southeast of Conakry, leaving several homes destroyed.

"The violence recorded since Monday in Koule, and then in N'Zerekore, has left 16 persons dead and at least 80 wounded," according to government spokesman, Albert Damatang Camara.

He said security forces had been deployed "en masse" and calm was beginning to return to the streets.

But a state radio correspondent in N'Zerekore expressed doubts that an accurate death toll would be established, as the bodies of many attacked by machetes had not been sent to hospital.

"Some were burned alive while others were cut with machetes. We are not able to manage. This situation is beyond us," AFP quoted Francois Lamah, a doctor from N'Zerekore.

Security forces had been deployed to break up the fighting on Monday but were initially unable to quell the violence despite a curfew imposed by N'Zerekore prefect, Aboubacar Mbop Camara, who appealed for reinforcements.

A security source said the government had dispatched two of its top army colonels--the director of the national organized crime agency and the head of President Alpha Conde's security--to restore order.

The men come from the region and are members of the two opposing tribes.

Conde called for calm and unity in a televised address to the nation and promised to bring those behind the violence to justice.

"While offering my condolences to the families of the victims, I condemn these acts," he said.

"I want to reassure the entire nation, and particularly the people of N'Zerekore, that the government has taken every measure possible to ensure the safety of people and their property."

A number of witnesses told AFP Guerzes and Koniankes had been attacking one another with machetes, axes, sticks, stones and firearms, setting fire to houses and cars.

Guerze chief Molou Holamou Azaly Zogbelemou was among those wounded and taken to hospital, Camara told AFP.

"The Konianke protesters also set fire to his home and his car," he added.

Communal violence is common in the region, near the border with Liberia, where clashes between the two tribes regularly break out over religious and other grievances.

The indigenous Guerze are mostly Christian or animist, while the Konianke -- seen as newcomers -- are Muslims considered to be close to Liberia's Mandingo ethnic community.

In Liberia's civil war, which ended in 2003, rebels fighting the forces of then-president Charles Taylor drew much of their support from the Mandingo community.

The Guerze, known as Kpelle in Liberia, were generally considered to be supporters of forces loyal to Taylor, who was jailed last year for "aiding and abetting" war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

"We're going to be done this time with the Konianke who invaded us and beat and burned the home of the patriarch of the town and Guerze spiritual guide Azaly Zogbelemou," a resident of N'Zerekore told AFP.

"It will be worse than 1991," he added.

That year clashes between the two communities left more than 200 dead.

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