A country at a crossroads - SG's Representative

Liberia is at crossroads and warrants concerted action by the international community to stave off a looming catastrophe, Abou Moussa, Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Liberia, said on Monday.

The humanitarian situation had gradually worsened over the last few months with an upsurge in fighting, he said in a report to the 10th Ministerial meeting of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) Security and Mediation Council, held in Abidjan. The security situation had deteriorated progressively since the start of the year and the trend would continue unless concerted action was taken to bring about a ceasefire between government troops and rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Peace (LURD), he added.

In the report Moussa gave a synopsis of the conflict from November 2002, when the LURD overran the city of Bopolu, in the western county of Gbarpolu, and eventually captured Tubmanburg, 60 km west of the capital, Monrovia. The rebels opened up new fronts on the west coast when they attacked Robertsport, and also in the centre of the country, around Gbarnga. At least 15,000 civilians were displaced in the Gbarnga attack, straining overstretched resources in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs).

Clashes also occurred in the northwestern county of Nimba and in Grand Gedeh in the southeast, on the border with Cote d'Ivoire. "Lately, Zwedru on the border with Ivory Coast and reputed to be a government stronghold was captured by the rebels. This has given rise to concerns that the situation could get out of control as the area hosts many Ivoirian refuges and IDPs," Moussa said. "Mystery continues to surround the identity of the people fighting in Grand Gedeh as LURD rebels have denied being present [...] leading to speculation that an unknown third force may have entered the fray in the Liberian conflict."

Attacks lead to displacement

Moussa said the most brazen attack came close to the capital, Monrovia, when the rebels attacked Ricks Institute IDP camp in March, leaving three IDPs dead and reportedly abducting 2,000 people as conscripts. The camp is just 20 km from Monrovia.

"The renewed fighting has unleashed massive displacement of thousands of civilians fleeing the war in search of safer shelters and in need of assistance," the representative said. "Moreover the war in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire has considerably compounded the Liberian internal situation."

This year's projections of refugees and returnees into Liberia, he added, had risen to 85,000 and 90,000 respectively. Some 100,000 people were also estimated to have been uprooted from the northwestern county of Lofa, neighbouring Bong and Gbarpolu, and Bomi and Grand Cape Mount in the west while 200,000 were IDPs in camps within the country. Three counties were also hosting 95,000 refugees, returnees and third country nationals in addition to 19,000 Sierra Leonean refugees accomodated elsewhere.

"According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the projection for humanitarian assistance has called for a budget of over US $42 million in 2003 of which only $635,000 has been provided," Moussa said. "It is a disturbing evidence of the onset of donor-fatigue which has come to characterise international response to humanitarian assistance for Liberia."

Bamako initiative

Calling for an urgent cease-fire, Moussa said :"The most conspicuous initiative currently on the drawing table is the proposed peace conference in Bamako, Mali [which has] raised considerable expectations across the board among Liberians who are already drained to exhaustion by continuing conflict." ECOWAS and the International Contact Group on Liberia support the Bamako talks, he added, paying tribute to Liberian civil society groups, including the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia and the Mano River Women Peace Network, for working for peace in Liberia.

"From the perspective of the internal political situation, the foremost objective is getting a binding cease-fire in place," Moussa said. "A cease-fire will at least bring to a merciful halt the continuing suffering of ordinary Liberians [and] set Liberia firmly on the road to peace and stability."