Relief agencies move in behind peacekeepers

UN peacekeeping troops have been fanning out into the interior of Liberia for the past three weeks and now the UN humanitarian agencies are preparing to follow them.

Justin Bagarishya, the head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Liberia, said two truck convoys would leave the capital Monrovia early next week for the towns of Tapeta and Saclepea in the troubled Nimba County of north central Liberia.

These would carry food, but also other relief items for Nimba County, where fighting between militia groups loyal to former president Charles Taylor and Liberia's two rebel groups continued long after the signing of a peace agreement in August that officially ended 14 years of civil war.

However, 250 Ethiopian troops attached to the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) rolled into Tapeta on 3 January to take over security in the town from the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) rebel group and now the aid is starting to follow.

Benkai Touzama, a traditional leader from Nimba Country who arrived in Monrovia recently, told IRIN in Liberian English: "The only thing people up there really want is food and medicines. You can never get good treatment when you get sick. I tell you no clinic there for our children, not to talk even ourselves...There is nowehere you can get food so easily, because nobody is making farm."

Bagarishya, who is the acting UN humanitarian coordinator in Liberia, said that within a few days the United Nations would also set up relief operations in Buchanan, a MODEL-occupied port city 120 km southeast of Monrovia, and Gbarnga, a town 150 km northeast of the capital which is held by the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement.

An UNMIL spokeswoman said the United Nations eased the security rating of both towns from phase five to phase four earlier this week, a move which allows UN civilian personnel to remain there overnight. Previously they were only allowed in on day visits.

UNMIL, whose troop strength has nearly doubled to 9,000 men over the past month, established garrisons of peacekeepers in both towns just over two weeks ago.

"As we speak now, most of the UN agencies are ready to move in with the logistics and staff to establish field offices in Gbarnga and Buchanan," Bagarishya said.

"I can assure you there is food in our warehouses for half a million people at least for four to five months," he added.

UNMIL has identified the eastern town of Zwedru, the headquarters of MODEL, as one of its next targets for deployment.

Aid agencies stopped operating in Zwedru since the rebels occupied the town near the Ivorian frontier in February last year. But officials of the UN refugee agency UNHCR said they were keen to reach a large number of Ivorian refugees and displaced people of other nationalities who were living there.

Some relief agencies, which specialise in operations in conflict zones, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres and the British medical charity Merlin, went up country well ahead of the UN peacekeepers, mainly to establish medical clinics and establish supplies of safe drinking water.

The ICRC, for instance, established a presence in Lofa County, a LURD stronghold in the far northwest of Liberia at the end of November. The area had been off-limits to aid agencies since LURD launched its rebellion there in 1999.

Reto Stocker, the head of ICRC in Liberia, said: "The ICRC has set up health centres in Zorzor, Foya Kamala, Kolahun, Voinjama and Gondalahun. In addition we have also managed to carry out the rehabilitation of water pumps in those towns, because there was no running water."

But he is keen for the blue helmets to arrive soon to give both aid workers and local people more confidence.

"It is clear that once UNMIL established its presence in Lofa, there would be much more people who would return to their villages and towns," Stocker told IRIN.

He noted that refugees from neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone were already spontaneously trekking back to Lofa before the relief agencies were fully geared up to deal with them.

Lofa County was once the main food producing area of Liberia, but relief workers who have visited the area recently have reported that its entire infrastructure has been shattered by constant fighting.

Merlin has meanwhile managed to supply and supervise a network of 30 health clinics across a broad swathe of MODEL--occupied southeastern Liberia and launch a measles vaccination campaign there.

Clement Peter, the head of Merlin in Liberia, said: "Prevalent cases in the southeast include measles, but this varies from county to county. WHO and UNICEF, Merlin and the county health teams are working closely to conduct a massive measles vaccination campaign there."

However, Peter admitted that poor security still prevent Merlin from establishing health centres in large areas of Grand Bassa and Nimba counties in central Liberia. A band of fighters loyal to former president Taylor, led by a man called General Kofi wa still roaming the bush there causing trouble, he said.

UNMIL attempted to make contact with General Kofi several weeks ago to rein in the activities of his marauding bands. A MODEL official said these efforts were continuing. "All efforts are being made for UNMIL to bring Kofi and his 600 men to Monrovia to bring relief to our people up there," he said.