Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Peacekeepers in Liberia face daunting task



Peacekeepers in Liberia face daunting task

Peacekeepers in Liberia face daunting task

MONROVIA, Liberia(AP) - For two years, 7,000 soldiers from seven West African

nations have run a low-budget peacekeeping operation in Liberia, trying to bring

an end to civil war.

Unlike well-financed U.N. operations, these peacekeeping troops are working on a

shoestring. They must repair broken rifle magazines with tape and their mess hall

is a woman selling meat pastries out of a paper bag.

They have largely succeeded in keeping rival Liberian factions apart, although peace

seems no closer and tensions have risen.

The peacekeepers operate with few of the luxuries, even necessities, of other peacekeeping

forces around the world. Most of their home countries can barely take care of their

own people, let alone finance the soldiers abroad.

The force is the only peacekeeping operation made up of soldiers from one region

and not chosen by the U.N. The soldiers come from Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Sierra

Leone, Ghana, Mali and Guinea under the sponsorship of the 16-member Economic Community

of West African States.

Their tours of duty average six months but can last a year. Few care packages from

home reach the peacekeepers: they are lucky if they get a letter. Nigerian television

broadcasts videotaped messages from the soldiers to their families and Ghana radio

broadcasts messages as well.

West African peacekeepers who have served in Lebanon and other countries with U.N.

forces lament the lack of pre-fabricated houses to sleep in as they had on other

assignments.

Instead, they are housed in schools, the crumbling Masonic temple in Monrovia and

the Assemblies of God headquarters. Others further from the capital sleep in tents.

Like peacekeepers everywhere they must be able to take a joke. When rebels stole

their radios and broadcast insults to the peacekeepers, they laughed.

"As a peacekeeper you just have to exercise restraint to avoid any shootout,"

said Col. Alex Ackumbo, commanding officer of Nigeria's 8th Battalion. "That

is what we are doing, why we are here taking all of this, just to avoid an outright

shootout."

The peacekeepers suffered their latest humiliation at the hands of Charles Taylor's

rebels in September. The rebels held 508 peacekeepers hostage in the interior and

seized their weapons, vehicles, clothes, and communications equipment. After their

release, the peacekeepers said rebels beat them and withheld food.

Maj. Gen. Ishaya Bakut, field commander of the West African force, refused to send

peacekeeping troops to investigate the outbreak of fighting, saying they would not

be safe.

"It's very embarrassing for us as Liberians," said Lamini Waritay, information

minister of Liberia's interim government. "This is an excellent opportunity

for the sub-region to tackle the problems of the sub-region."

The peacekeeping force sailed into a chaotic Monrovia to impose a cease-fire in August

1990, bombing Taylor's rebels out of the city's eastern suburbs and sending regular

Liberian army troops back to their barracks.

Things took a turn for the worse for the peacekeepers when a splinter rebel faction

burst into its headquarters and captured former president Samuel Doe, who was visiting.

Doe's captors tortured and killed him.

Taylor, who controls most of the West African nation founded by freed American slaves,

subsequently agreed to a peace accord that would disarm his troops. But he has refused

to honor it, accusing the West Africans of seeking to destroy him.

"We come here for peace," said Cpl. Didion Titus, crouching in a trench

with his rifle pointed toward Taylor's territory. "We want to defend this place."

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