22 July 2003

Liberia: Desperation in Monrovia as Death Toll Soars

Johannesburg — There were more scenes of desperation in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, on the fourth straight day under a rebel onslaught. The government said Tuesday that more than 600 civilians had been killed in recent days, six times the number of dead calculated by relief workers on Monday.

The office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees described the situation as "horrific". Humanitarian agencies urged the immediate intervention of foreign troops to stop the killing. But there was little sign that the planned West African peacekeeping force scheduled to be dispatched the Liberia was yet en route.

After a quiet night, there were reports of sporadic bombardment, shelling and small arms fire in the city on Tuesday. Rain exacerbated the suffering of tens of thousands of Liberians. People were huddled under plastic covering in corners, where they had found shelter in Mamba Point, the diplomatic district of Monrovia, which has also come under fire in recent days.

Regional military leaders were meeting further along the coast in Dakar, Senegal, to conclude preparations for the deployment of troops to Liberia. Nigeria said 750 soldiers were standing by, waiting for orders to move.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which is mediating peace negotiations between the rival Liberian factions in Ghana, told the BBC Tuesday they were putting the finishing touches to the peacekeeping plans.

Asked if Ecowas was ready to intervene to stop the fighting in Liberia now, Chambas said "We are working on that. Ecowas is working on that with our partners." And to the question, "But won’t it be too late?" he replied, "I certainly hope not."

Chambas appealed to both Liberian government and rebel forces to respect the ceasefire, which has collapsed in this recent rebel assault on Monrovia. He warned: "There will be no military option that will bring lasting peace to Liberia. No one faction can overrun the others and bring durable peace to Liberia. It is an illusion on the part of some of the factions to think that they will prevail. They are trusting the military option and unfortunately it is resulting in tragic loss of life."

But Liberian Defence Minister, Daniel Chea, appeared dismissive of regional efforts to end the war in Liberia. He told journalists Tuesday, "We hear that Ecowas are talking about dollars and cents, how much each soldier is going to get paid before they come here. It has got to a point where the (Liberian) government can no longer wait."

Chea said, with more and more people dying in Monrovia, Taylor’s beleaguered government now wanted an international arms embargo against Liberia to be lifted, so that they could acquire more weapons and defeat the rebels. Chea said they had the strength to do their own fighting and only needed the arms to accomplish their military aims.

Asked if Taylor was still prepared to quit power, the minister responded: "President Taylor had agreed in principle to leave and what we got in return was an onslaught on the city. It doesn’t matter whether he leaves or not."

Political uncertainty and raging battles apart, it is the images of people running helter skelter for cover in Monrovia, and searching for somewhere to hide, from mortar shells, bursts of gunfire and crossfire, that have dominated television screens since Monday. This followed a renewed bombardment after a 12-hour lull in the fighting when people ventured out to look for food and essentials in a city, prone to looting sprees, that has no running water and virtually no other utilities.

United States' marines flew into the American embassy complex in Monrovia Monday, to provide additional security and protection after it was hit by a mortar bomb.

The move prompted a furious response from city residents and displaced people in the capital, who besieged the embassy in another spontaneous demonstration, alternately pleading for American military assistance to help save Liberian lives and hurling abuse at the US mission for not taking action to end the fighting.

They dragged bodies of some of those killed on Monday and piled them up outside the American Embassy, in protest. Journalists reported one distraught woman beating at the gates with her bare hands and moaning.

Speaking at his ranch in Texas, President George W Bush, said: "We are concerned about our people in Liberia. We continue to monitor the situation very closely. We’re working with the United Nations to effect policy necessary to get the ceasefire back in place."

Bush has said he would only consider sending U.S. troops to help a West African peacekeeping force if Taylor left the country. The Liberian leader is now an indicted criminal, wanted for war crimes by the UN Special Court across the border, for sponsoring the civil war in Sierra Leone.

The European Union called Tuesday for the "early deployment" of international peacekeepers to Liberia, saying it would consider offering support to such a force.

The Pentagon reported that 4,500 U.S. troops - marines and regular sailors - were being re-routed on three warships towards the Mediterranean, to be on stand by for possible use in Liberia if Bush deemed it necessary. Spokesman, Lt Daniel Hetlage said the ships would need 7-10 days to sail to Liberia. He called the move "prudent planning" for any possible Liberia operation, adding, "They have no such orders of that kind yet."

For Liberians, this situation has an air of déjà vu. In 1990, when Monrovia came under attack by then rebel leader Charles Taylor as he tried to capture the city, American warships sat off the Liberian coast in the Atlantic Ocean. Marines evacuated Americans and foreigners, Monrovians recall, and then dithered and watched as the city came under siege, but did nothing.

Residents fear the same may happen again in 'take two' of the civil war. They are angry that Washington has stood aside despite the strategic role their country played during the Cold War as America’s number one ally in West Africa and as a regional base for the CIA, ignoring economic history in which the country was virtually ruled to suit the goals of U.S. companies like Firestone and notwithstanding longer historical ties dating back to the 19th century when Liberia was settled by freed American slaves.

Late Tuesday, Liberian rebels were reported to have ordered their troops to stop fighting.

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