Death toll mounts in Liberian rebel riots

At least eight people have died in three days of riots in the Liberian capital sparked by former combatants angered by the conditions of a United Nations campaign to disarm them after 14 years of war, witnesses and state radio said on Wednesday.

Six former soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia—the army of former president Charles Taylor—were killed in gunbattles overnight with peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMil), residents of eastern Monrovia said.

A civilian was shot eight times at point-blank range on Tuesday after refusing to hand over her vehicle to the rioting fighters, and a former combatant was killed by UNMil peacekeepers, who returned fire after he shot at them when they tried to prevent him from stealing a vehicle, state radio reported.

UNMil spokesperson Patrick Coker said he had no knowledge of the deaths of the six former soldiers reported on Wednesday.

If the reported gunbattles are confirmed, they would be the first clashes involving United Nations peacekeepers since they deployed in August, when Taylor fled into exile, paving the way for an end to the West African nation’s wars, which have since 1989 left more than 200 000 dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Former fighters have been running riot in the battle-scarred capital since Sunday, protesting against what they say are inadequate incentives the UN is offering to persuade an estimated 40 000 combatants to disarm.

Most of the rioters were soldiers in Taylor’s army or members of militias who fought in a war against rebels that began in 1999.

The rampaging fighters looted homes and small businesses, and abducted teenage girls along the way, said panicked residents.

Despite a curfew imposed on Tuesday by Liberia’s transitional government, sounds of gunfire could be heard early on Wednesday morning, alongside the rumbling of UNMil tanks rolling through the capital.

UNMil is bringing in the tanks to set up new checkpoints around Monrovia, which was declared “weapons-free” in October when the UN began its mission.

Liberia’s interim leader, Gyude Bryant, said in a radio address on Tuesday evening that an overnight curfew would come into force in the capital on Wednesday and last “until otherwise advised”.

“The government is warning all those involved in the anti-peace action to desist forthwith, as the government and the international community will not condone the reckless and irresponsible attacks by mobs on peaceful citizens,” Bryant said.

“Ex-combatants involved now run the risk of being arrested and taken before a war crimes tribunal.”

The $50-million, UN-backed disarmament process began on Sunday, with about 1 400 former government fighters handing over their weapons to Bangladeshi peacekeepers at the Schieffelin military barracks outside Monrovia.

The disarmed fighters were to receive $300 for laying down their weapons, but the payments were only to come after the combatants had been demobilised and reintegrated into civilian life.

Unimpressed by the incentives offered, scores more fighters left Schieffelin carrying the weapons they had intended to leave behind.

New disarmament terms were proposed on Tuesday, offering fighters $75 on surrendering their weapons, along with food rations, psychological counselling and training.

An additional $75 will be distributed to each combatant on completion of a three-week demobilisation program, followed by another $150 once they are reintegrated into their communities.

The project has been scaled back to focus on Taylor’s army and militias. The main rebel movement, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, which seized four-fifths of the country in its four-year battle to oust Taylor, refuses to disarm until a dispute over government posts is resolved.—Sapa-AFP

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