Unsteady Liberia Takes Another Fall

Fighting in the capital sets back peace process; elections look dim

A PEACE process that had been considered Liberia's best chance of ending six years of a brutal civil war faces even more obstacles after a resurgence of fighting in the capital, Monrovia, once the country's safest areas.

By yesterday, even the city's diplomatic enclave had been breached after Western African peacekeepers inexplicably abandoned their security checkpoints. Employees of the United Nations Observer Mission (UNOMIL) fled their offices Sunday as rebels ransacked them. At the United States Embassy, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people sought refuge, according to a spokesman.

Liberia was established as an independent republic in 1847 as a home for freed American slaves. The civil war began in December 1989 when forces loyal to rebel leader Charles Taylor invaded from Ivory Coast to overthrow dictator Samuel Doe.

What began as a popular rebellion degenerated into tribal warfare. The United Nations estimates 150,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

A cease-fire began in August, and Liberia's three main guerrilla leaders joined a six-member transitional ruling team that took office in September. With factional fighting renewed, the goal of the peace process - elections in August - is seriously in doubt.

The clash began Saturday as government forces, backed by two militias, laid siege to the home of another former militia leader recently fired from the interim government. Roosevelt Johnson had refused to turn himself over to police to face murder charges, claiming the allegations were politically motivated. Security forces attacked a downtown barracks after not finding Mr. Johnson at home.

More militias joined the fray. The fighting did not surprise many who have observed increasing tensions since the transitional ruling council took over.

"We think that as these guys came to town they brought along with them the ... war mentality from the jungle," says Samuel Kofi Woods of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission.

There were squabbles from the start, cease-fire violations in the countryside, and a discovery of weapons that turned out to belong to rebels under one of the new government leaders.

Disarmament, supposed to be completed by now, hasn't even begun. The West African cease-fire monitoring group known as ECOMOG tried to deploy last December. But in the northwestern region of Tubmanburg, rebels who were supposed to turn over their weapons instead ambushed the peacekeepers, killing at least 60 of them. Their motive apparently was continued control over the area's rich diamond and gold deposits, a booty that not only rebels but also peacekeepers are suspected of looting.

The peacekeepers retreated and have since been holed up in small, scattered safe zones, while all around them strategic forest roads continue to be controlled by teenagers with AK-47 rifles slung on their thin shoulders.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is continued mistrust among rival factions. "The main issue at stake is to convince the different factions that once a disarmament process is put into place and executed, it will take place simultaneously," says relief worker Bart Witteveen of Save the Children. "Everybody at this point is afraid that if they are to start disarmament they will be the only one caught out."

Some are wondering if the Monrovia flare-up signals the beginning of a return to full-blown civil war. National Patriotic Front of Liberia leader Charles Taylor, an interim co-president and the man who began the war in 1989, says no. He defends the government's violent pursuit of former rebel leader Mr. Johnson, who also signed last year's peace accord but whose rebels staged December's attack on peacekeepers.

"Can any government permit groups that have signed documents and committed themselves [to peace] to run amok?" Mr. Taylor asks. "I don't believe so. I believe in discipline."

Yet others believe it is Taylor himself, and Liberia's other co-presidents, who are running amok. The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission's Woods says the international leaders who applauded Liberia's tricky coalition government last summer should have foreseen trouble. "They have defied and contradicted all decent norms of civilization by allowing those who should be tried as criminals to take over the political leadership of this country."

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