UN assessment team reaches key rebel town

A humanitarian assessment team led by the United Nations on Tuesday reached Gbarnga, 150 km north of the Liberian capital Monrovia, which was a military and political stronghold of former President Charles Taylor before the main rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), overran it in July.

LURD rebels used the town as their base in central Liberia to launch attacks on government positions further south. They also took control of Taylor's personal farm and special military training facilities near Gbarnga.

Following the visit, the UN intended to open an office in Gbarnga. This would be a transit point for returnees, refugees and displaced persons fleeing continuing violence in central and northern Liberia, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Liberia, Abou Moussa told reporters in Monrovia.

For over a month, skirmishes south of Gbarnga Liberian government troops and LURD rebels had prevented humanitarian agencies from reaching it.

"The UN has not abandoned essential parts of rural Liberia. We intend to go up to Voinjama [the provincial capital of the northwestern Lofa county near the Guinean border]. We want to make sure we reach all parts of Liberia to re-establish our presence," Moussa said in Monrovia.

"The security situation in some counties is the main factor that has hampered humanitarian efforts to move deep into Liberia," he said.

Moussa said the UN was discussing with all warring parties to allow more access for aid agencies into the Liberian interior to deliver much needed relief assistance to thousands of war-affected civilians.

"We are in an environment where trust had broken down and we need to rebuild that. The fact that we have been able to go to Zwedru and Harper without an escort is an important element," he added.

The team that visited Zwedru, the provincial headquarters of Grand Gedeh County in southeastern Liberia near the border with Cote d'Ivoire, crossed through the Ivorian town of Guiglo.

The team said that all health services in Zwedru and surrounding villages had come to a halt from 27 March when rebels of Liberia's second group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) attacked the county.

"There is no food scarcity on the local markets in Zwedru, however there were no reported outbreaks of diseases with exception of measles that were reported in three districts," the team said.

Leaders of Liberia's rebel factions and a government representative on 17 August signed a Peace Agreement in Accra, Ghana at the conclusion of lengthy peace talks which was meant to allow unhindered access within their areas, by humanitarian agencies to deliver relief to destitute civilians.

The agreement also created a government of national unity headed by businessman Gyude Bryant, which is due to be sworn in 14 October. It will replace an interim government led by Moses Blah, which took over when Taylor left for exile in Nigeria on 11 August.

Since the agreement was signed, relief agencies have been probing cautiously into many rebel-held areas to assess humanitarian needs. They have since accessed several LURD-controlled areas in the west and MODEL-controlled Buchanan in the southeast.

However recent skirmishes between government troops and both LURD and MODEL fighters in central and southeastern areas, have hampered access. The skirmishes triggered off movement of thousands of civilians fleeing the violence.