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The World

No Cessation to the Fire in Liberia

Attacks and raids by soldiers and rebels continue in a city lacking peacekeepers.

August 18, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

BUCHANAN, Liberia — Government militiamen and rebel fighters continued to harass civilians and clash with one another in the countryside Sunday, despite a cease-fire agreement reached last week between Liberian officials and insurgent leaders.

On the road to the port city of Buchanan, which was only recently made accessible to journalists, numerous soldiers and rebels interviewed complained of nightly attacks by the other side. Three or four fighters were reported killed over the last three days by gunmen at checkpoints.

Hundreds of civilians also were on the highway, walking toward Monrovia. Many said they were seeking to escape physical abuse and thieving by government soldiers.

And inside Buchanan, about 60 miles southeast of Monrovia, renegade rebels of the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, or MODEL, were intimidating residents in displacement camps and sacking businesses.

The continuing unrest in rural Liberia stood in contrast to Monrovia, which has been relatively peaceful since West African peacekeepers landed almost two weeks ago. Most of the fighters with the biggest rebel group -- the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD -- pulled out of the capital.

Hundreds more West African peacekeepers arrived in Monrovia over the weekend, bringing their total number to more than 1,000. They have been joined by about 200 U.S. Marines. The peacekeeping force is seeking to end the almost 14 years of war that had flared into heavy fighting in the capital in recent months.

Peace talks continued Sunday in Ghana between rebel factions and the government of President Moses Blah, who assumed office last week after his predecessor, Charles Taylor, went into exile in Nigeria. Negotiators from LURD dropped a key demand that their movement be given one of the highest posts in an interim government, Associated Press reported, leading to hopes that a power-sharing agreement might be signed today.

For the first time in several weeks, churches in the capital opened their doors Sunday to standing-room-only crowds, a sign that residents were trying to get their lives back to normal.

But outside of Monrovia, it appeared that the situation had not greatly improved for ordinary Liberians.

Elijah Barkley, 23, was among the procession of people on the highway walking toward Monrovia who complained of rough treatment by poorly trained and undisciplined government soldiers. Barkley had fled Monrovia during the height of the fighting over the last two months, but now found that his new location was also unsafe.

"They tied my arms with rope," said Barkley, showing ligature marks on his biceps. Liberian fighters on both sides have tied up people as a form of torture -- eventually circulation ceases and gangrene can set in.

Jimmy Carter, 23, who was walking along the road near the village of Jaco Town, said soldiers attacked his village in the night, stealing tents and food, and beating several villagers with the flat sides of machetes. Soldiers also raped one woman, he said.

"They said that President Blah had not paid them and had abandoned them" when Blah flew to Ghana last week for peace negotiations, Carter said.

In Buchanan, the situation is similarly tense. Most of the city's 80,000 residents have fled into the surrounding bush or are crammed into displaced people's camps at church compounds and schools, which have been invaded nightly by renegade MODEL fighters in search of food and supplies.

While rebels in Monrovia last week looted food storehouses for the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations -- creating their own chaotic food distribution program -- such large storehouses don't exist in Buchanan.

Although negotiators in Ghana agreed over the weekend to give relief agencies safe passage throughout the country, the organizations are still concerned about security. They have not distributed significant food supplies to Monrovia, much less Buchanan -- which is about three hours' drive from the capital in normal times, along a highway now disrupted by 20 checkpoints staffed by gunmen.

Attired in fatigues, Sean Jean T-shirts, choir gowns and women's dresses, government militiamen and rebel fighters rushed out from commandeered huts along the highway as cars approached. At many of the checkpoints, rows of shell casings standing on end, lines of coconut husks or fresh leaves were put in the road to slow passing vehicles. Fighters on both sides demanded cigarettes and blamed their enemy for ongoing hostilities.

The fighters said that gun battles had taken place every night since Thursday inside the negotiated buffer area north of the Saint John River, about 10 miles north of Buchanan.

Buchanan itself is a sorry sight these days. Beyond the bullet-ridden welcome sign are broken shop windows, vehicles without wheels, and doors and cupboards left ajar. A sign at the last checkpoint before the city says, "No monkey put foot," a warning that government supporters should stay out.

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