30 July 2003

Liberia: World Watches While We Die, Say Liberians

Washington, DC — "All of the patients in JFK hospital in Monrovia will die this week - they have no food, no water and no medicine," says Wilson Tarpeh, a Liberian businessman and newspaper publisher. Tarpeh, who is in Minneapolis, has been in telephone contact with physicians at the medical facility and with other residents of the capital.

"We are pleading with the international community to hurry up, hurry up, but nobody is doing anything," he says. "It seems they are just going to let our people die." Tarpeh estimates that at least 10 percent of Monrovias residents are at immediate risk from lack of food and water and from disease. Aid workers believe 300 to 400 people are dying daily from cholera.

Two meetings scheduled for Thursday could move the international community towards a response. The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has scheduled an emergency summit in Accra, Ghana, and key U.S. officials are slated to discuss Liberia during a National Security Council session at the White House.

West Africa wants to act, according to Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Ecowas executive secretary, who spent two days in deliberations at the United Nations this week, working on mechanisms for intervention.

"The kind of logistical support we thought we would get is not happening as quickly as we had hoped," Chambas said in a telephone interview late Tuesday on route to the airport for a flight back to Ghana for the Ecowas session.

Ecowas members have said from the beginning that they need logistical and financial assistance to undertake a peacekeeping operation, Chambas said. Nigeria has committed two battalions for a vanguard force that could reach Liberia as early as this week. One battalion has been stationed with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, Liberia's next-door neighbor, while the second would be sent from Nigeria. President Olusegun Obasanjo says his soldiers are ready to move as soon as "adequate material and logistical support" is committed by the international community.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has appealed to the Security Council to approve deployment of a multinational force to Liberia with a Chapter VII mandate, which permits the use of force. "The consequences of allowing the situation to spiral out of control are too terrible to contemplate," he said in a strongly worded letter on Monday.

Meanwhile, UN officials are exploring ways to draw upon the organizations military mission in Sierra Leone to quick-start assistance for the planned Liberia operation, including transferring resources that would be reimbursed once a Liberian operation is formally approved.

Chambas said the U.S. government has pledged $10 million to assist the Ecowas operation, but these funds "are not immediately available" for the advance force that Ecowas seeks to deploy now. The State Department has said the funds will pay for logistics support to be provided by a private contractor, Los Angeles-based Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE). "This can't assist the troops that will deploy in the next week," Chambas said.

At a White House press conference Wednesday, President George Bush said that he stands by the offer of aid for Liberia that he made six weeks ago before leaving on a five-nation Africa trip, but he reiterated the conditions he has said must be met. "Charles Taylor must go, the cease-fire must be in place, and we will be there to help ECOWAS," he said. "We're working to get those conditions in place, and we will continue working to get them in place until they are in place, at which point we will then take the necessary steps to get ECOWAS in place, so that we can deliver aid and help to suffering Liberians."

Last week, he ordered the Pentagon to send a three-ship Amphibious Ready Group with 2,300 Marines on board to the coast off Liberia. But no decision has been made on what action, if any, the troops will take when the vessels reach their destination in approximately a week.

The president emphasized again that "troop strength will be limited and the time frame will be limited." He told reporters that the administration is looking to the United Nations, as well as Ecowas, for both peacekeeping and political activities "to provide the framework for a transition to democracy."

Administration officials indicate that several key questions about Liberia may be decided during the National Security Council meeting Thursday, where differences within the government, particularly between the State and Defense Departments, are to be discussed. Although State Department officials have proposed several forms of assistance to Ecowas, beyond the $10 million contractor fee, Pentagon and White House officials have resisted, saying that resources required for overseas commitments are already earmarked for other areas, including Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're at the end of the fiscal year, and nearly everything that can be spent has been obligated," one official said.

Meanwhile, the administration stepped up its diplomatic efforts by sending Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner to West Africa on Monday. One focus of attention is Guinea, Liberia's northern neighbor, whose government is the main supporter of the rebel movement known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd).

Over the weekend, Kansteiner's deputy, Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater, visited the Guinea capital, Conakry, where she met for the first time with Lurd leader, Sekou Konneh, as well as with Guinea government officials. Kansteiner held further talks today, in an effort to stop the flow of weapons that Lurd has been using in the latest outbreak of fighting against government forces in Monrovia.

"They have guns, they have bullets, they have other weapons," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters Tuesday. "These come from somewhere, and they don't get it through the official channels, so that means they're coming from neighboring states," he said. "We need to talk to neighboring states to do everything they can to prevent that supply and support."

On Thursday, Kansteiner is scheduled to represent the United States as an observer at the West African summit, hosted by Ghana's President John Kufuor, the current Ecowas chair.

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