Thousands still fleeing harassment by gunmen

Thousands of Liberians are continuing to flee harassment, rape and summary executions by lawless gunmen of the government and both rebel movements in remote areas of the war-ravaged country, relief workers said.

"A pattern of instability, characterized by sporadic weapons fire, looting and human rights violations is emerging across the north-central Liberian counties of Bong, Lofa and Nimba," the United Nations Special Humanitarian Coordinator in Liberia, Ross Mountain said in a statement on Thursday.

A relief worker who visited central Liberia earlier this week, told IRIN that about 3,000 civilians from Phelankoli and Sanyea villages had fled to the nearby town of Totota, 109 km north of the capital, Monrovia, on Wednesday.

He said there were a large number of government troops deployed in Sanyea as a buffer against the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement, which controlled the area further to the north.

"The government troops did not receive food for several days, so they went on the rampage, looting, terrorising and killing civilians. Another group of armed men, believed to be LURD fighters, attacked civilians in Phelankoli," the relief worker told IRIN on Friday.

The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the situation north of Gbarnga, a LURD-occupied town 40 km up the road from Totota, remained fragile.

OCHA said clashes had been reported between LURD and government militia around the nearby village of Palala, sparking off a new wave of population movements.

On Wednesday, LURD Chairman Sekou Conneh said his movement had ceased hostilities following the signing of a peace agreement on 18 August. But he acknowledged that skirmishes were continuing between LURD fighters and government troops in some parts of the country.

Conneh called for West African peacekeepers to deploy in areas where clashes were continuing to put an end to the skirmishes.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has reported that several thousand Liberian refugees had fled from Lofa County, in the extreme northwest of Liberia, into neighbouring Guinea in recent weeks, fearing renewed fighting in that region.

UNHCR said on Friday that new arrivals in Guinea had reported that militiamen loyal to former president Charles Taylor were harassing residents, looting homes and raping women. There were also reports of summary executions.

It added that similar reports had been received by UN security staff from Liberians fleeing Bong and Nimba counties in north central Liberia.

Charles Taylor was forced by international pressure to resign as Liberia's president and go to exile in Nigeria on 11 August. Moses Blah replaced him on an interim basis, but diplomats say that various fighting groups that were personally answerable to Taylor still take orders from him.

Mountain said: "A similar pattern has now occurred in Nimba County where an unknown number of civilians have uprooted their lives and are now on the move inside the county, as a result of reported clashes between the government and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) forces."

"At a time when the United Nations and our non-governmental organization partners have begun to make significant inroads in terms of access to civilians, it is disturbing that these 'pockets' of insecurity remain," he added.

Mountain said the UN had identified five regional 'hubs' from which it would try to deliver urgent humaninatiran assistance in the interior. These were Saclpea (Nimba County), Voinjama (Lofa County), Gbarnga/Phebe (Bong County), Harper (Maryland County) and Zwedru (Grand Gedeh County).

"These hubs will serve as critical outreach posts from where a coordinated response to humanitarian needs can be met in a swift and localized manner. Over time, it is our hope that our reach will extend well beyond these centres and into areas the international community has not accessed for more than three years," he said.

UNHCR said it was optimistic about the security situation after 14 years of civil war, describing it as "promising but fragile."

It said conditions should improve once 15,000 UN peacekeepers begin deploying in mid-October, replacing the 3,500-strong West African force (ECOMIL) which was sent in last month.

Last week, the UN Security Council approved the peacekeeping mission (to be called UNMIL). It will take over command of the West African peacekeeping force on 1 October, two weeks before the inauguration of a broad-based transitional government led by businessman Gyude Bryant on 14 October.