Long-awaited help is on the way for war-ravaged Liberia. West African peacekeepers began arriving in the capital, Monrovia, Monday, but it is still anyone’s guess when regional troublemaker President Charles Taylor will leave, as he recently promised. The papers reported that the imminent arrival of peacekeeping forces sparked new fighting in Monrovia and other nearby cities, as rebels and government forces sought to claim key strategic points.
Fighting between the two sides has killed at least 1,000 civilians in the past several weeks, and aid workers warned that the international community must act immediately to avert a humanitarian disaster. Papers said aid organizations have finally been able to begin moving food and other supplies to the capital. In recent weeks, food all but ran out, hospitals—often the target of mortar fire—have scarcely been able to function, and the fighting recently cut off Monrovia’s main water supply, sparking an outbreak of cholera. Britain’s Independent reported that 30 tons of British aid and medical supplies should arrive in Monrovia Monday. The U.N. World Food Program has also been able to airlift food to the capital for the first time since the latest hostilities broke out a month ago.
The U.N. Security Council last week approved the deployment of a Nigerian-led force to stay in Liberia for two months, to be followed by U.N. peacekeepers. The roughly 200 soldiers arriving Monday are part of a West African force expected to number around 3,000.
Meanwhile, the papers said that Taylor, indicted for war crimes in the region and notorious for dramatics and empty rhetoric, continues to keep the international community guessing. After a pledge in early June to leave the country, followed by vows to stay and fight the rebels to the end, the warlord-turned-president’s next move is uncertain—as is the reaction of his supporters who have been locked in bloody battle with the rebels for more than a decade. The Independent said: “Fears are growing about how Mr. Taylor’s fighters will react when he finally goes. The President has repeatedly warned that chaos and bloodshed will follow in his wake.” London’s Daily Telegraph reported that Taylor agreed to cede power on Aug. 11, but only “to a successor of his choosing from an inner circle of friends and cronies,” and he remains vague about when he will actually leave the country. Taylor had appeared willing to accept an earlier offer of asylum from Nigeria, but the papers now doubt he will follow through.
Either way, Taylor’s departure would hardly guarantee peace in Liberia; after more than 14 years of civil war, most young men know little other than shooting and looting. Britain’s Observer said the presence of West African peacekeepers “could well be enough to shock and awe much of the rag-tag groups of militias and rebels … but Liberia is stacked with wild cards.” The paper said an increase in fighting after the arrival of West African military advisers “was widely attributed to Taylor’s forces growing restive at his possible departure.”
Many observers have also expressed concern that the rebels who have fought so long to oust Taylor will offer a desirable alternative. Ivory Coast’s government-owned daily Fraternité Matin ran an interview with one of the leaders of the main rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development, who is representing LURD at talks in Accra, Ghana. Asked whether the rebels are seeking to oust Taylor only to grab power for themselves, as many believe, he assured the paper, “No. We are totally for a negotiated solution. We are convinced that Liberia’s war must end through negotiations. We sincerely think that Liberia deserves peace, and we will never be an obstacle to peace in Liberia.”
The Observer focused on Liberian civilians’ desperation after so many years of fighting. A man who lost his 12-year-old son in recent fighting told the paper: “Liberians, it’s all our fault. We let things get out of hand. Everybody wants to be president, that’s the problem here.” Summing up the complexity of creating real stability in Liberia, France’s Le Monde declared, “Of all the challenges, the greatest will be to reconcile Liberia with itself.”
The papers wondered whether U.S. forces—on standby off the West African coast—will ever come ashore to help Liberia. For now, the United States is providing funding and logistical support, and this might be the extent of its involvement. The Observer, again alluding to language from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, said, “Though peacekeepers are likely to be greeted with dancing in the streets, the Pentagon prefers the boots on the ground to be Nigerian, lest mayhem resumes.” An op-ed in Britain’s Guardian said that despite its historical ties to Liberia, the United States has consistently avoided its duty to help the country. (Liberia was founded in 1817 as a place to send freed American slaves.) “The extraordinarily reluctant way in which the US has been edging toward the commitment to troops to Liberia shows the Bush administration still refusing to accept more than a limited share of responsibility for a country which America both helped to create, in the 19th century, and helped to ruin, in the 20th.”