Aid workers wait, dodge bullets in Liberia

West African troops could be in the country by Wednesday.

As fierce fighting continues to grip Liberia's capital, Monrovia, aid work has become an exercise in opportunity. During a break in the fighting, Paul Jaiblai, a water engineer for the British aid group Oxfam, went on a one-man chlorination expedition to a local school, while colleagues passed out a few bars of soap.

Health workers from the French medical group, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), have been living in a hospital in the diplomatic district of Mamba Point while staff from the International Committee of the Red Cross brave gunfire and shells to bring the injured to its care facility.

There are currently an estimated 1 million people trapped in Monrovia, but until peacekeepers arrive and security is restored, there is little more the aid community can do.

"It's catastrophic," says Justin Bagirishya, director of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in Liberia, who was evacuated last week to Abidjan, in neighboring Ivory Coast, from Monrovia with the UN's last remaining international staff.

Humanitarian workers say the situation is rapidly becoming a major humanitarian disaster. The WFP has 10,000 tons of food in a warehouse in Monrovia that it is unable to get to and an additional 7,000 tons in neighboring countries. Sunday, US Ambassador to Liberia John Blaney called on rebels to withdraw from the city, which would allow aid workers to access the warehouse.

Most aid groups have evacuated their international staff, and local staff are largely confined to their houses or offices. "We cannot access the camps right now," Sam Nagbe, acting head of Oxfam, says by telephone. "Each time attempts are made to get out, people are met with a barrage of mortar shells."

Sunday, 14 more people were killed in an attack on residential neighborhoods, coming a day after seven were killed in similar shelling. The total number of casualties since fighting renewed nearly two months ago is as high as 1,000, though figures vary widely.

Despite the desperate situation in Monrovia, there is still no definite timeline for the arrival of peacekeepers. Many observers say the international community missed a key opportunity to intervene during a short-lived cease-fire earlier this month.

"The cease-fire was observed for a little while, but because there was no force to keep [the rebels] at bay, the fighting started again," says Cyrille Niameogo, a representative for the UN Children's Fund, who was also evacuated to Abidjan. "Even if they agree to a cease-fire now, we don't know how long that would last if peacekeepers don't come in."

Last week, Nigeria committed to sending 1,300 peacekeepers under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). And on Friday, President Bush said three American ships carrying as many as 2,000 marines were en route to Liberia. The first should arrive within the week.

But Mr. Bush still has not clarified what role those troops will play, saying only that they will support West African troops. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of ECOWAS, told CNN Sunday that Nigerian troops could be on the ground by Wednesday, but says the US needs to "spearhead" the effort because they lack the capacity.

Meanwhile, aid groups are struggling to deal with the thousands of injured, and are concerned about the potential victims they don't see.

"We're very worried that people are just dying at home, afraid to come to the hospital because of the shellings and mortars," says Andrew Schechtman, a doctor with MSF.

Frustrated groups in Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone are putting themselves in place for a quick deployment should the situation stabilize. There is, they say, no time to be lost.

"When the situation is this catastrophic, you don't count days, you count hours even minutes," says Mr. Bagirishya. "Even a minute seems like a day."

Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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