Recruiting Liberia's child soldiers

The UN children’s agency set its sights on Thursday on efforts to take thousands of child soldiers off the streets where they have been used as frontline gunmen by both government and rebel forces in Liberia’s devastating wars.

The UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) plans to launch a vast clean-up operation in the capital next week and intends to recruit the child fighters who roam its streets for the job, said Unicef regional director Rima Salah.

“The most important thing is to get child soldiers off the streets and get them to a safe haven,” she said.

“The clean-up operation will help to occupy child soldiers who have taken part in the latest fighting,” for the control of Monrovia, she said.

Further down the line, Unicef plans to set up centres for child fighters and officials have hinted at educational or vocational training programmes.

In the immediate future, the agency is to focus its efforts on helping to dig new wells to bring drinking water to the city, and to rehabilitate existing ones with chlorine.

Brutal fighting in Monrovia, where mortars and shells rained for weeks on end, has displaced some 450 000 people, who are crammed into filthy makeshift shelters and face crippling shortages of food, clean water and medicines.

Although calm has returned to the capital since the departure of president Charles Taylor, the key figure in nearly 14 years of almost uninterrupted warfare, the civilian population remains in desperate need of assistance.

West African peacekeepers on Thursday took control of Monrovia’s port to allow food and relief supplies into the capital as the new president started peace talks with rebel leaders in Ghana.

On Thursday, UN aid workers were due to assess the damage to foodstocks at Monrovia’s besieged port on Thursday, which was looted by thousands of starving people a day earlier.

“The first thing is to assess the damage and to determine how much food is left,” said Aya Shneerson, a spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP).

“After we have assessed what we have left we will continue with distribution,” in the capital and outside, she said, adding: “We can only take it one day at a time.”

The United Nations has anchored a ship offshore from the port city, which was ready to bring in much-needed supplies of food and medecine “as soon as the port is secure”, according to spokesperson Carolyn McAskie.

The port had been held by the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd), fighting to overthrow Talyor, for the past two months.

The rebel handover was preceded by widespread looting, as departing gunmen as well as civilians pillaged warehouses and containers for food and supplies before the Ecomil peacekeepers took over.

Some 200 US marines also arrived outside the Liberian capital Monrovia on Thursday to help Ecomil secure the port area and provide a gateway for humanitarian supplies to the beleaguered city. - Sapa-AFP


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