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Amid Signs of Hope, Liberia's Future Remains Uncertain

Peace and normality are gradually returning, but some violence persists and could quickly worsen.

August 27, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A week-old peace accord between Liberia's warring factions and the presence of regional peacekeepers have helped end much of the recent fighting that brought the West African nation to its knees. Markets have reopened in the capital, Monrovia, children now play in the streets, and there is laughter again.

But prospects of a brighter future for the country, tortured by 14 years of conflict that has claimed about 150,000 lives, still hang in the balance.

Reports of continued fighting in several areas outside Monrovia, the reluctance of rebel leaders to accept a recently appointed interim leader and the seeming unwillingness by the United States to stay engaged threaten to hamper Liberia's ability to stand again.

Local and foreign Africa specialists cautioned that despite the appearance of a return to some semblance of normality -- at least in the capital -- the general situation in Liberia was still so volatile that one spark could reignite the flames.

"Regretfully, Liberia is still not out of the woods," said Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based think tank. "There needs to be peacekeepers firmly situated on the ground, and they need to increase their numbers and expand their scope."

A 3-week-old West African peacekeeping force, currently numbering 1,500, is expected to grow to 3,250 and be taken over by a United Nations mission within a few months. The U.S. had about 200 Marines in Liberia until Sunday, when 150 of them were sent back to their warships off the country's coast, 11 days after coming ashore.

Commanding officers said the American troops would be better positioned to respond to any skirmishes in the country if they remained aboard ship. But the move has left many residents of the capital feeling abandoned.

"Everybody is a little bit concerned," said Kevin Savage, emergency programs coordinator for the international aid agency World Vision. He spoke by phone from Monrovia. "The attitude of some people is that [the Marines'] presence on the ground is a little more assuring than them being on the ships."

Some Africa analysts said the move underscored the disinclination of the U.S. to play a long-term role in helping to sustain peace in Liberia -- a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century -- and might work to embolden those determined to continue to fight.

"This has a strong psychological impact on those on the ground," said Woods, the analyst. "It gives the rebels the feeling that they can win with the barrel of the gun. It sends absolutely the wrong message."

Washington hesitated for several weeks before deciding to commit any troops, and President Bush has stressed that the U.S. deployment would remain small and would end by Oct. 1.

The presence of the West African force has helped end hostilities in Monrovia, but its mission is not to go beyond the capital, where a sense of optimism has accompanied the renewed calm.

In recent days, fighting in northeastern and southeastern Liberia has sent civilians fleeing. Government officials and leaders of the rebel movements Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, or MODEL, blame each other for the continued clashes.

Observers in the capital said some LURD factions remained belligerent and were proving difficult to negotiate with. Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea said Tuesday that LURD forces had seized Gbatala, a town 80 miles from Monrovia, Reuters news agency reported.

"The rebels don't have absolute control over their own troops back home," said George Ayittey, associate professor of economics at Washington's American University and president of the Free Africa Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

"They signed the peace accord [in Ghana], but that signature does not mean anything to those on the ground" in Liberia, he said.

Liberia's interim leader, Moses Blah, whom rebel leaders reluctantly accepted this month as a bridge to a transitional administration expected to take office in October, told reporters in Monrovia that he had appealed to the U.S. to help quell the fighting in the countryside. It was not clear how Washington responded.

The continued violence is tormenting capital residents as well as those directly in the path of the combatants, said Frances Johnson-Morris, national director of Liberia's Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, who spoke by phone from Monrovia.

"People are feeling uneasy about fighting in other parts of the country, because [many] are from those areas and cannot go back until the fighting subsides," she said.

"What everybody is waiting for is for the U.N. to come and deploy throughout the country," said Savage of World Vision. He noted that living conditions in Monrovia, which is jammed with civilians displaced by the fighting, remained dire. Malnutrition rates have skyrocketed to almost 40%, and supplementary food aid is critical, he said.

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