Liberian conflict threatens region

Refugees are gathering in camps and flowing into Sierra Leone as rebels may move on Monrovia.

The refugee camp is deserted, the displaced people gone. They ran away in a panic, not even sure who was after them. They did not leave much behind: a child's shoe here, a diary there. But then, they didn't have much to begin with. And now they are homeless again, shuffling down the roads looking for their next shelter. The skies, as if a party to the cruelty, feature a merciless sun one moment, and pour down rain the next.

For the past two months, attacks by the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels have been increasing in both numbers and daring. So, too, has the violence and looting perpetrated by the unpaid government soldiers and militias charged with protecting the population. Ragged and displaced people are everywhere, as many as 20,000 within Liberia, according to the UN Children's Fund, which has begun airlifting in emergency relief supplies.

The capital, Monrovia, looks to be the next and final target of the chaos. It is a matter of weeks, say observers, before either rebels attack – who have been as close as 15 miles from the city – or fear of such an attack causes panic and looting, and the capital goes up in flames. With this, observers warn, the whole region is liable to catch fire.

The wars in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone – countries which make up the Mano River Union – have for years been negatively affecting one another. Combatants have spilled over borders, refugees have flowed in and out – as many as 100 a day into Sierra Leone, according to the UN – and, more maliciously, rivalries and personal ambitions have caused leaders in each country to support dissidents in the other.

Of the three countries, Liberia is considered to be the main regional troublemaker. International sanctions were placed on President Charles Taylor last year after it was established he was backing the vicious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone, as well as sponsoring their invasion of Guinea.

The UN Security Council reinstated sanctions last month, which include an arms embargo, a ban on selling diamonds, and travel restrictions on top government officials and their families. They found no conclusive evidence that Taylor had stopped supporting RUF combatants, even as Sierra Leone tried to build its fragile peace by demobilizing and reintegrating the fighters. The international community, having spent hundreds of millions of dollars on securing calm in Sierra Leone, does not intend to play games with anyone threatening their successes there.

"Liberian President Charles Taylor continues, with Libyan support, to push a grand scheme of political change in West Africa, which involves intertwined objectives of achieving a Greater Liberia, and asset-stripping of the vast natural resource base of the region," says John Prendergast, Africa director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), a think tank that recently prepared a report on the Mano River Union conflict. "As long as Taylor remains in power, the entire region will remain unstable. He and his rogue commercial and military allies feed on instability."

Some observers say Taylor is "stage managing" the growing crisis within Liberia – exaggerating, inventing, or even supporting the rebel threat as a way of trying to gain international sympathy, and fool the UN into lifting sanctions against him. Other say his objective is to cancel next year's scheduled elections on the pretext of a war, and so cling to power. A state of emergency has already been declared, which has allowed for crackdowns on the opposition.

Taylor vehemently denies both that he is artificially hyping the war or supporting the RUF, and in turn accuses the US and Britain of arming and supporting the LURD in an attempt to get rid of him. He could be correct.

While there is no hard evidence that direct assistance is being given to the rebels by these Western powers, the indifference to Guinean support for the LURD indicates where they stand on the issue. Just last month, the US approved giving the Guinean army $3 million, despite various reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which show LURD combatants being armed, trained, and transported into Liberia by Guinea.

"There is a weariness with this place and a feeling that, let them stew ...," says one Western diplomat in Monrovia, "unless it begins to effect all the peace efforts in Sierra Leone. That's different."

It is doubtful, however, that LURD, as an alternative to the current regime, will secure calm. The rebels are said to be nothing more than a loose coalition of dissidents, with no defined leader, nor any plan beyond taking power away from Taylor and bestowing it on themselves. "Not even support from outside will make them into much more," says Mary Brunell, founder of the Liberian Women's initiative, a peace lobby. "All these boys want is a piece of the pie. They see the big men and they want to be the big men. Having them in power would be no improvement."

But the role of the rebels is not to take power in any case, argues Abraham Mitchell, a founder of the New Deal movement, an opposition political party. "LURD are relevant only in terms of militarily pressurizing the government to agree to a negotiated settlement," he says. "They are agents of those who want a settlement that could force Taylor to go to real, free, elections next year."

Meanwhile, the displaced in Liberia are oblivious to the diplomatic maneuverings and debates over regional instability. In the Cari refugee camp, right outside Gbarnga, a young barefoot man stands in front of a hut. He ran away from his home village in northern Lofa county nine months ago and rebuilt a shelter here. Now, from his hideaway in the bush he has come to see the new damage. "They took my [sleeping] mat," he says. And cries.

Another displaced man escaped Gbarnga and made his way, together with four of his five children – the last is missing – to the nearby village of Ganta. There, he saw his own plastic cooking utensils being sold in the market. He recognized them from the little design his wife had painted on the bottoms. With one US dollar he could have bought them back, but he looked down, ashamed. He has nothing in the world.

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