Fresh rebel attacks in Liberia, West Africa, have stoked an already grave crisis in a region where up to 1 million civilians are hungry, desperate, and on the run. The press this week reported continuing clashes between the Liberian government and rebel troops, who attacked a town that houses a U.N. transit center for refugees. The violence left thousands seeking shelter in a region where safe places are becoming more and more scarce. An editorial in Liberia’s independent daily the News concluded, “Irrespective of the time the war takes, there shall never be perpetual winners other than the destruction of precious lives and valuable assets,” adding, “the perennial attacks and counterattacks of the forces continue to bring untold suffering to the population.”
The government of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor has been battling the rebels, who call themselves Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development, since a rebellion in 1999. Conflicts in West Africa historically have been rife with cross-border ethnic clashes, looters, and mercenaries taking up arms to support rebel groups. Members of the U.N. Security Council this week urged West African nations to refrain from trafficking in arms or mercenaries. This came after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a report saying any continued moves to back the Liberian rebels could engulf all of West Africa in a humanitarian and economic crisis.
The latest LURD offensive, in Toe Town near Liberia’s border with Ivory Coast, sent about 2,500 refugees-in-transit fleeing once again, many reportedly trying to reach another U.N. camp about 50 miles away. Following the attack, the Liberian government was quick to accuse Ivory Coast of assisting the rebels, a charge Liberia has consistently made of its neighbors—especially Guinea. Now, with Ivory Coast wracked by its own 6-month-old armed conflict, Liberia says the LURD rebels are taking advantage of the chaos to establish a new launch pad for their offensive. According to the News, Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea called the latest LURD attack “foreign aggression,” warning that Liberia “would pursue the attackers from where they came from.” Chea is quoted as saying, “For [Ivory Coast] to encourage Liberian mercenaries fighting alongside their own troops in their civil crisis to cross the border into Liberian territory is tantamount to a declaration of war.” Asked whether Liberia would mount a counterattack, Chea replied, “Anything is possible.”
For the Liberian opposition New Democrat,President Taylor is the menace. The paper blasted the Liberian government for consistently pointing the finger at neighboring nations for rebel uprisings inside its borders, calling Liberia “West Africa’s net exporter of wars and grandfather of rebels.” New Democrat, formerly a daily newspaper based in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, now publishes a Web version from exile in the Netherlands, after it halted operations in 2000 following persistent harassment and threats by the Liberian government.
The troubled African country also made the headlines of the Norway Post, which reported that a Norwegian employee of the Adventist Development & Relief Agency went missing after the latest rebel offensive. The two Liberian colleagues he was riding with have been found dead; the Norwegian ADRA agent is still missing. [Update March 10, 2003: The Guardian reported that Kaar Lund’s body was found last Friday.]
On the eve of the rebel attack, France’s Le Monde reported that the U.N. refugee agency and the World Food Program are struggling to handle some 900,000 refugees or displaced persons in the region, with severely inadequate resources, according to WFP. Intense fighting in Ivory Coast late last year led tens of thousands to flee refugee camps there and reluctantly return to a still-volatile Liberia. A WFP spokesperson told Le Monde the agency worries that if war starts in Iraq, the international community will completely turn its focus away from the West Africa region.
The Guinean weekly La Lance recently published a Q and A with Guinean Foreign Secretary Francois Lonseny Fall, who said his country is eager to bring the Liberian conflict and other African issues into the U.N. spotlight. Guinea currently holds the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council. “We envision a debate focused on the proliferation of arms and the phenomenon of mercenaries, which constitute a considerable menace and a huge worry for everyone in the region.”