Fighters and Looters Gut Capital, Spinning Liberia Out of Control


THE last international aid workers left the embattled Liberian capital, Monrovia, on April 16, complaining that systematic looting has left them powerless to address the worsening humanitarian crisis brought on by 10 days of factional violence.

"This is deeply, deeply frustrating, deeply disappointing," says Bart Wittezeen of Save The Children UK, whose entire fleet of 17 vehicles - plus computers and communications equipment - was stolen by militia members earlier this week.

"On a personal level, it has become very difficult to find the motivation and the energy ... to do this over and over again. Because it is becoming, one would almost believe, a cyclical event in the Liberian crisis," he adds.

Factional fighting in the capital has shattered the 13th peace accord in Liberia's six-year civil war, crushing last summer's optimism after three of the country's main militia leaders joined three civilians in a transitional government that was to oversee disarmaments then elections later this year.

What began as a standoff between members of that government and another militia leader quickly degenerated into a frenzy of rampaging and looting by all seven of Liberia's guerrilla groups.

The city is now divided along shifting ethnic lines, and most residents are confined to their homes or displaced camps, forced to make do with little or court danger by going out to seek food. Many of the combatants are children as young as 10, who crowd into white jeeps stolen from aid agencies and careen down otherwise empty streets, their AK-47s jutting from open windows.

Decaying bodies line various roads, some with hands tied execution-style behind their backs. There was no official casualty count, but American diplomats monitoring the violence say the main focus is not killing, but looting.

"The situation has spun out of control, far beyond the imagination of those who started it," said William Milam, the US ambassador who has overseen the evacuation of nearly 2,000 foreign nationals during the past week.

The US Embassy is now down to a skeleton staff of 18 and is guarded around the clock by American soldiers. The pool in its residential compound is nearly drained, having been diverted as taps and toilets ran dry.

Much of the city was due to run out of water April 16, since imports of oil used to fuel the main water pump had stopped. But European diplomats said the militia faction that controls the city's only oil refinery has agreed to offer the needed fuel.

With foreign nationals gone, the immediate concern of the remaining diplomats will be the deepening humanitarian needs among the estimated 60,000 people displaced by the fighting.

Across the street from the US Embassy, more than 10,000 refugees camp on the compound where diplomats used to live. The World Food Programme has supplied two weeks' worth of food, but sanitation is poor.

Eddet Inwang, a local doctor volunteering at the camp, worries about the possible spread of disease. "What I have been doing is diagnosing them and writing a prescription, but they have to fend for themselves in finding the medicine," he says, noting that drugstores have been looted like everything else, and the aid agencies who could have supplied medicine have left the country.

At least one agency, Catholic Relief Services, has asked the US State Department to supply transportation and protection so the agency can return.

While diplomats said random shooting and militia clashes had slowed in recent days, the standoff that sparked the current crisis persists.

Charles Taylor, the man who started Liberia's war in 1989 and now the most vocal member of the country's interim government, continues to call for the surrender of deposed militia leader Roosevelt Johnson to face murder charges.

Mr. Johnson is believed to be hiding in a downtown military barracks. Troops loyal to Mr. Taylor surround the barracks, which also houses fighters loyal to Johnson, as well as hundreds of civilians trapped as human shields. Both men have resisted the efforts of Ghanaian diplomats to mediate their dispute.

For many Liberians, it doesn't seem to matter who eventually gains the upper hand here. "We are not looking at any winner in this war," says Gabriel Yaso, who returned to Liberia from five years of exile expecting to find peace. He now is homeless after a grenade destroyed his house. "We have a saying that if two elephants fight, the grass always suffers. These militias are fighting, and it is we, the civilians, who are suffering."

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