THE violence that has wracked Liberia for more than a year is now spreading into neighboring Sierra Leone - evidence that Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi is plotting to destabilize West Africa, according to regional officials. Since the end of March, rebels of Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) have launched raids across the Sierra Leone border, seizing villages, press-ganging youths into military service, and sowing confusion throughout the border zone. At first, the government of Sierra Leone thought the raids were isolated incidents.
In recent weeks, alarmed by the rebels' continued presence, Sierre Leone has sent fresh troops to the area and solicited promises of military aid from the United States, Britain, and Egypt, among others.
"We are facing a very grave threat," Sierra Leone Foreign Minister Abdul Karim Koroma said in a meeting with Washington Africa experts.
One reason for the rebel raids may be anger by Charles Taylor at Sierra Leone for participating in a West African peacekeeping force which has prevented him from seizing power in Liberia.
Another may be a shove from a patron. Foreign Minister Koroma, and officials from other West African nations, charge that it is Libya's hand that is pushing Taylor over the Sierra Leone border.
"There is a determination to destabilize the West African region for whatever Libyan purposes," claims Koroma.
US officials say the situation is worrisome, but that the specific nature of US military aid is still being considered. Both sides agree no US troops will be involved. Washington does not dispute that Taylor has Libyan connections, with his troops receiving arms and training via Libya's local ally, Burkina Faso.
"All the footsteps lead backwards" toward Libya, says a US official.
Meanwhile, a peace settlement seems no closer for battered Liberia itself. The West African peacekeeping force controls Monrovia, the capital, with most of the rest of the country remaining in Taylor's hands. Claiming security worries, Taylor never showed up at a peace conference that earlier this month brought together the other two warring Liberian factions, plus leaders from Liberian civil society and officials from the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) countries.
The purpose of the conference was to establish a formal interim government, a step included in the terms of a plan brokered by the West African peacekeepers. A permanent leader would then be picked in nationwide elections. NPFL delegates eventually walked out of the conference, which reelected academic Amos Sawyer as interim president.
The member nations of the West African peacekeeping force are clearly losing patience with Taylor, who has declared himself president, set up a "capital," and refuses to recognize the authority of the interim government. "I don't see Taylor succeeding in any of his machinations," said Nigerian Foreign Minister Ike Nwachukwu in an interview.
Sierre Leone President Joseph Momoh last week said it is time to "flush out Charles Taylor once and for all" - a threat that may indicate a coming confrontation between Taylor's rebels and the the West African peacekeeping force.