THE resumption of fighting this week in the West African nation of Liberia highlights the cost of inattention to peacemaking in nations torn by civil strife.
"The lesson we see in Liberia is that where there is civil conflict and where the world does not get engaged or tries to do it on the cheap, there's a price to pay," says Reed Kramer, managing editor of the Durham, North Carolina-based Africa News Service, a non-profit news agency that distributes news about the continent.
An eight-month-old peace pact between warring Liberian factions collapsed Saturday when widespread fighting broke out in the capital, Monrovia.
A reported cease-fire yesterday at least temporarily ended four days of conflict. But a small fleet of helicopters continued to evacuate American diplomats - including United States Embassy staff and dependents, businessmen, and relief workers - to safety in neighboring Senegal.
A team of 18 Navy SEAL commandos has been dispatched to Monrovia to reinforce security at the embassy.
An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 civilians, meanwhile, remain crowded into a housing compound near the embassy, in the Mamba Point neighborhood of Monrovia. Hundreds of others were being used as human shields by the leader of one of the main rebel factions, Roosevelt Johnson, whose attempted arrest touched off the weekend fighting.
An official of one relief organization who has been monitoring events from Ivory Coast reports that relief workers have been forced to remain in their homes, bringing relief operations - including medical clinics and feeding centers for malnourished children - to a halt. Offices and warehouses containing food and medicine have been looted.
The country's only international airport and Monrovia's seaport have reportedly been closed, meaning that it could be days or weeks before relief operations could be resumed even if the cease-fire holds, says the official, Benjamin Chapman, who represents the private French relief organization Doctors Without Borders in the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan.
"All of the relief activities going on are basically pointless because, if there's no stability, it's impossible to operate," says Mr. Chapman.
Mr. Kramer credits the US for helping to broker peace between the Liberian factions. But he says the interest of Western nations has "not been on a scale that the region requires in order to deal with the instability that exists there."
Ghanaian economic development consultant Joseph Annan says. "We [Africa] are not a France. We are not a US. And we are not a Britain. Even the UN cannot afford it [intervention] So in simple language, it's a cop-out to say it's an African problem."
When the world community declined to take direct responsibility for peace in Liberia, West African nations formed their first-ever peacekeeping force, consisting mostly of Nigerians. But the 12,000-member contingent has been a financial drain on contributing nations.
Meanwhile, there have been spillover effects from Liberia into Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone, whose own civil war, fueled by a rebel group that has links with the largest rebel group in Liberia, threatens to upset the transition to a recently elected civilian government.
And arms flows in and out of Liberia is said to be fueling a skyrocketing crime wave in Ivory Coast.
Civil war began in 1989 when Charles Taylor, a descendant of American immigrants, overthrew the government of dictator Samuel Doe. The armies of both men fragmented into warring factions. (See briefing, left)
The August peace agreement between six rival warlords called for a cease-fire, disarmament, and elections within a year. The possible breakdown of the "Abuja accord" poses a problem for US policymakers.
They will have to decide whether to stick with a pledge, made at a UN donors conference last October, to provide $75 million to implement the agreement. The amount includes $10 million for logistical support, including trucks and helicopters, for the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG.
Since 1989 the US has provided $430 million in humanitarian assistance to Liberia and more than $60 million to support efforts at conflict resolution and peacekeeping, according to a State Department source.