International Papers

How Many Bodies Before Bush Acts?

Papers say any international action to stem the fighting in Liberia is at least days away—possibly longer. Meanwhile, daily combat in the capital, Monrovia, is leaving in its wake dead civilians, hundreds of thousands of displaced and terrified Liberians, and even a battered U.S. Embassy building. Even for Liberia, a country at war with itself for the past 14 years, the papers say the fighting has been remarkably fierce in recent days.

The papers portray a desperate waiting game, with all sides—from the rebels to potential peacekeeping forces—declaring conditions that must be met before they will act to halt the fighting. The Independentof Britain described utter chaos in Monrovia—called “horrific” by one U.N. official—as Liberians await action by the international community. The paper said Nigeria—which would provide the bulk of a West African peacekeeping force—will not move in until a cease-fire is firmly in place. West African defense ministers are meeting in Senegal to discuss the crisis. (Some countries in the region are willing to participate but badly need funding to do so.) Meanwhile, the United States—which has ordered Navy ships with 4,500 Marines and sailors to move from the Horn of Africa to the Mediterranean—has said Liberian President Charles Taylor must step down before it will intervene. President Bush has yet to commit combat forces, thus far limiting U.S. action to military assessment missions, the evacuation of Americans, and protection for the U.S. Embassy, which was hit by mortar fire this week.

Earlier this month, President Taylor agreed to leave Liberia—Nigeria offered refuge to the warlord-turned-president—but he remains in the country, saying he will not leave unless foreign troops are on the ground to man the transition. Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian ran an Associated Press report that quoted Taylor saying this week that his forces would “fight street-to-street, house-to-house” to conquer the rebels. “I will never desert the city. I will never desert my people.”

The New Democrat, a paper run by Liberian exiles in the Netherlands, challenged this image of an undaunted Taylor. In a piece headlined, “Goodbye Invincibility, Farewell Confidence,” the paper said Taylor’s fighting words are just rhetoric. “Evidence is that Taylor is now left naked, his confidence in war and his belief in his own invincibility destroyed by repeated rebel onslaughts” in Monrovia.

The Guardian said some experts believe the rebels have resolved to remove Taylor before peacekeepers arrive. “[They] fear he will try to use [foreign troops’] presence to cling to power.” Combat diminished slightly Tuesday when rebels called for a break in fighting, but rebel and government forces continue to trade gunfire, leaving conditions far from the cease-fire West African leaders are demanding.

Liberian citizens continue to pile dead bodies in front of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, begging the United States to step in. Papers report that Liberians are becoming increasingly resentful toward the United States, which they feel has abandoned them. The Guardian said the possibility of the United States deploying combat forces appears to be receding and that it is more likely the United States will limit its role to backing West African troops. A Western diplomat in Monrovia told the paper, “It looks like Nigerians are the best we are going to get. America looks more likely to evacuate and close down its embassy than send troops.”

An editorial in the Statesman of India suggested that a U.S. intervention in Liberia could help repair the Bush administration’s image among those in the international community who opposed the invasion of Iraq. The paper said the very fact that President Bush is openly considering sending troops to Liberia is “an event, given the disdain for multilateralism that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration since its inception.” The paper said, “The Bush administration could be readying some multilateral efforts to show that it is capable of altruism.” The Financial Times concluded that the Liberian crisis, which infects all of West Africa, requires more than just a brief foreign intervention. The paper called the crisis, “a conflict whose pan-regional complexity will require a deeper long-term solution than the arrival of international peacekeepers or the departure of President Charles Taylor.”

Conflicting reports have emerged of how many civilians have been killed in this week’s fighting. Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that the Taylor government appears to be inflating casualty figures in an effort to push the international community to intervene. While aid agencies in Monrovia put the number of dead at about 100, the government has said over 600 have been killed in recent days. Many newspapers are citing the higher figure, with the Guardian running the headline, “Death toll in Liberian capital rises to 600.” Given the chaos in Monrovia, papers say it is impossible to have an accurate count. Whatever the number, civilians clearly are bearing the brunt of the fighting. France’s Le Figaro noted that the combat has stifled humanitarian efforts. A U.N aid official told the paper: “The violence is spreading, and the people don’t know where to go. There is no shelter, there is no food, there is no water.” The European Union’s aid coordinator told the Guardian that the U.N. food warehouses are “right in the fighting.”