Renewed fighting rocks Liberia

By Mark Huband

The Guardian, 1 September 1992


FIGHTING between Liberia’s warring factions and the shooting dead of a peacekeeping soldier yesterday threatened to wreck moves towards peace which West African countries have been attempting ever since a ceasefire was agreed in 1990 after the country’s civil war.

Troops loyal to Liberia’s main rebel leader, Charles Taylor, were yesterday accused of shooting a member of the multinational West African Peacekeeping Force which was sent to Liberia in September 1990 by countries in the region worried about the war’s destabilising effect.

Mr Taylor’s control of up to a quarter of his territory has been shattered by a rival rebel group, the Sierra Leone-based United Liberation Movement for Democracy (Ulimo), in the past month. Yesterday, Mr Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) continued to encircle the landward side of the capital, Monrovia, with troops and heavy artillery as up to 25,000 refugees fled to the city in the face of fierce fighting to the north-west.

Monrovia is controlled by an interim government led by Amos Sawyer, whose task is to steer the country towards elections as part of the faltering peace process. The city has been largely cut off from the rest of the country, which has been under Mr Taylor’s control since July 1990.

The leader of the 7,000-strong West African peacekeeping force sent to Liberia in September 1990, Major-General Ishaya Bakut, commenting on the NPFL’s troop and weapons deployment around Monrovia, said: “We assume they can be directed against Monrovia. But I don’t want to speculate about the NPFL’s plans.”

Joe Mulbah, a spokesman for Mr Taylor, reached by telephone at the NPFL base in Gbarnga, said yesterday; “It’s not intended to hit Monrovia. We have hundreds of people living there and we do not want to attack the city. But we will be engaging in a massive mopping up operation in the north-west counties,” he said.

Ulimo’s rapid advance has been explained by Mr Taylor as being due to aid it has received from the countries keeping force, notably Nigeria. This claim is strongly denied by Gen Bakut.

The Ulimo force was formed by former ministers in the ousted regime of the Samuel Doe, and his Krahn tribe in Sierra Leone, to where many of them fled after Doe was murdered in September 1990.

When the NPFL sponsored an invasion of Sierra Leone in March 1991, led by a Sierra Leonean dissident, Corporal Foday Sankoh, Liberian refugees and wealthy members of the ousted regime formed a militia which initially fought alongside the Sierra Leonean army to repel the invasion. The invasion failed and the anti-Taylor Liberians pursued the invaders into Liberia and became known as Ulimo.

Ulimo was refused a place at the Yamoussoukro peace talks, held in the Ivory Coast last year. The talks laid the foundation for all Liberia’s warring factions to hand weapons over to the peacekeeping force, who would restore law and order in the run-up to elections scheduled for November 1992.

Ulimo’s exclusion from the talks is now seen as a major blunder by the Ivory Coast president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who brought the sides together. Ulimo leaders have failed to attend subsequent peace talks.

Despite signing the Yamoussoukro peace agreement and the disarming of troops, Mr Taylor has refused to disarm because of the Ulimo attacks. Mr Taylor’s critics believe he is prepared to wait until there is no longer the political will in West Africa to maintain the peacekeeping force, allowing him easier access to the presidency from which the force barred him.

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