Q&A: The Liberian conflict

Michael Peel is a freelance journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria. He recently traveled in Liberia. Mr. Peel discussed the recent fighting in Monrovia with csmonitor.com's Jim Bencivenga.

Given the chaos from fighting in Liberia, how compromised are international aid workers? How effective can they be in providing emergency relief?

Aid workers say the fighting is an enormous obstacle to their efforts to provide humanitarian relief. I spoke on Monday to Dominique Liengme, head of the delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross, who was trapped in the US embassy because of mortar fire landing in the surrounding Mamba Point diplomatic area. Ms. Liengme said she counted 25 explosions in the space of a few hours. "We were just about to leave when the explosions started," she said, speaking by telephone from the embassy. "Since then we couldn't leave."

Some aid workers have been evacuated this week by helicopter from the US embassy. Oxfam, the British-based aid organization, said on Tuesday that it was "too dangerous for most aid workers to continue their work."

Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF), the medical aid agency, said on Wednesday that it was having "pretty severe problems as far as being able to operate the few programs we have been able to continue". It has been forced by the fighting to set up two hospitals in its former residential compounds. It treated 155 wounded people on Monday and saw 13 dead bodies, while its chief surgeon performed operations until four o'clock the following morning.

MSF has been forced by the fighting to shut down clinics it ran in three camps for internally displaced people to the north of the center of Monrovia. MSF says it is now treating a few hundred cases of cholera each week, a reflection of the crowded and unsanitary conditions in Monrovia.

"The real difficulty is that, with all the shooting continuing, it's very, very difficult for the wounded people to make it to our hospitals," said Kris Torgeson, MSF communications director. "There are very, very few other facilities open for people to be treated."

Ms. Torgeson says a Liberian MSF staff member was killed over the weekend in Monrovia when he went home to collect his family. "His house was hit by a mortar," she says. "That's an indication of how things are."

Liberians in the street are blaming the US for not sending military forces. Can you explain why Liberians look to the US in this crisis and would be disillusioned if America didn't send troops?

One reason is Liberia's history. The modern state was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves and ruled by an elite of US descent for more than 125 years. A second reason is that the US had strategic cold war links with Liberia, which was seen as an important anti-Communist outpost in Africa. The US gave hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the brutal regime of Samuel Doe, who met President Ronald Reagan at the White House.

The US embassy is by far the largest foreign diplomatic presence in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, while billboards around the city juxtapose the colors of the Liberian and US flags alongside slogans such as: "For peace and harmony". Many Liberians see the lack of US action as a betrayal of that relationship.

Is there any sanctuary where civilians and non-combatants can take refuge?

The fighting since the start of Liberia's first civil war in 1989 has displaced most of the country's population at one time or another, according to estimates by the Red Cross and others. Recently, many tens of thousands of people have gathered in camps north of the city center and in large buildings such as the city's main sports stadium. When trouble starts in Monrovia, people tend to flee by the thousands to the Mamba Point diplomatic area, where huge crowds gather outside the US embassy to seek protection. The US embassy and the European Union compounds just up the road are the only remaining diplomatic missions of any size. Almost all the people who come to the area are not allowed into the main embassy compounds, meaning that huge crowds gather in the streets outside and in nearby United Nations' buildings.

Liberians have sought refuge in US embassy residential buildings across the road from the main part of the compound. But this area, too, has come under fire. At least seven people were reported to have died when a US embassy building was fired on last month and 25 more deaths were reported this week after a similar attack.

Which African countries are most crucial in helping bring order and stability to Liberia and how capable and likely are they in doing so?

The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-member union, plans provisionally to send a regional peace-keeping force, although no timetable has been set for its deployment. By far the biggest contributor to the ECOWAS force would be Nigeria, which is sub-Saharan Africa's most populous nation and its second-largest economy after South Africa. The Nigerian army says it has a battalion of 776 soldiers ready to form part of an initial ECOWAS contingent of 1,500 troops. One potential problem is that the Nigerian army was heavily criticized over alleged looting and human rights abuses when ECOWAS deployed a force in Liberia during the 1990s.

Looking ahead, how and when do you see the fighting ending and a semblance of order restored? Is it possible without US military intervention, or is that a must?

The idea that a ceasefire can hold without a stabilizing force from outside is widely seen as wishful thinking. Many people say a relatively small peace-keeping force on the ground could have a big effect in calming the situation, especially if it included US troops. The fighting is only part of the problem - much of the long-term damage being done to Liberia is the result of looting under the cover of the combat. Some observers think ECOWAS and the US are delaying their decisions on troop deployment, as each is waiting for a commitment from the other party to send a force.

In the long term, many analysts say peace will only be sustainable if a solution is found to the huge social and political problems of the entire region, where there is a history of states supporting rebels on each other's territory, and of a generation of young people who have few prospects and are brutalized by the constant fighting.

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