LIBERIA: UN troops enter LURD territory at second attempt
Monrovia, 29 December 2003 (IRIN) - UN peacekeeping troops set up their first base within territory controlled by the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group at the weekend without meeting resistance after being barred from entering LURD territory on Christmas Day.
A detachment of 125 Pakistani troops drove in a convoy of armoured vehicles to Kley Junction 35 km north of the capital Monrovia, on Saturday, the United Nations in Liberia (UNMIL) said in a statement.
Kley Junction is a strategic crossroads, controlling access to the Sierra Leone border at Bo Waterside and the town of Tubmanburg, which hosts LURD's military headquarters.
Last Thursday , LURD fighters had stopped a larger contingent of Pakistani troops heading for Tubmanburg from crossing the Po River Bridge. The bridge marks the frontline between UN-controlled Monrovia and the rebel-occupied northwest of the country.
Military sources said that following Saturday's deployment to Kley Junction, LURD fighters and fighters loyal to the former government of Charles Taylor began clearing checkpoints in western and northern Liberia ahead of a larger deployment of UN peacekeepers to other parts of the country.
Pro-Taylor commanders in north central Liberia told IRIN by satellite phone on Sunday that almost all checkpoints in Nimba county had been dismantled to prepare for UNMIL's deployment there.
"Government forces here in Nimba are out for peace, we are aware that the war is over, so there is no need for unnecessary checkpoints. That is why we have removed checkpoints in Kahnplay, Saclepea and Ganta towns. We have UNMIL to deploy here quickly", one commander, who identified himself as General Mehn, said.
LURD's deputy military chief of staff, General Oforie Diah, told IRIN on Monday that his forces were also starting to remove checkpoints in rural Liberia to allow for what he called "unhindered deployment of UN troops".
Diah said he would personally accompany an UNMIL delegation to the LURD-held town of Gbarnga, 150 km northeast of Monrovia to brief his fighters to clear checkpoints and allow UN troops to establish a base there.
"We are preparing to turn over everything to UNMIL, our checkpoints and guns, because the Liberian people are tired of war. We too are tired of war", he said.
LURD fighters rejoiced and set fire at checkpoints they formerly guarded as the first column of UN troops rolled down the road to Kley Junction on Saturday, accompanied by General Daniel Opande of Kenya, the UNMIL Force Commander.
Both LURD fighters and villagers lined the route chanting, "we want peace, no more war, we want UNMIL."
Until recently, UNMIL lacked the troops strength to deploy much beyond Monrovia and its immediate surroundings. But the recent arrival of 2,000 more troops, including contingents from Pakistan and Ethiopia, has lifted the force to more than 7,000 men, enabling to become more adventurous. UNMIL is due to reach its full strength of 15,000 men in late February or March.
Opande told a group of war-weary LURD fighters after arriving at Kley Junction: "Today deployment in Bomi County begins the long road in reuniting the whole country together. We will move in Tubmanburg, all the way to Lofa and all other parts of the country."
"No more war, the war is over," he added. "No need for you to continue to be holding arms".
Opande said UN peacekeepers would move into Tubmanburg, 15 km north of Kley Junction, within a few days.
UNMIL said it would deploy troops to LURD-controlled Gbarnga and Buchanan, a port city 120 km southeast of Monrovia held by the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) rebel group, on December 31.
The peacekeeping force has not yet said when it intends to move into Nimba county. This remained the scene of continued fighting between LURD and pro-Taylor forces long after the signing of a peace agreement in August officially ended 14 years of civil war.