Aid agencies leave Liberia to its fate

Monrovia - Terrified Liberians have been left to fend for themselves among drugged-out gangs of gunmen and looters running rampant in their capital, as the world's emergency aid groups abandoned the warring country.

A two-day ceasefire was barely holding yesterday, despite the proclamation of a provisional truce, as the shelling of an army barracks continued and small-arms fire clattered throughout downtown Monrovia. All the shops and office buildings in the capital have been looted and most of them destroyed.

More than 60,000 Monrovians have been left homeless, many wandering the streets searching for food and shelter. "I pity you Liberian civilians," a Nigerian peacekeeper told a woman as she looked for powdered milk for her baby. "The warlords will never give you a chance to live a normal life."

While armed men raced through the streets in stolen vehicles, brandishing AK-47s and grenades, they no longer appeared to be menacing civilians now that most of the shops have been looted. Local Red Cross workers began to clear dozens of bodies from the streets.

The African peacekeepers vowed to put an end to the siege of a military barracks where thousands of Liberians were holed up with supporters of the warlord who sparked the current round of warfare. At least 37 peacekeepers were being held hostage at the barracks, where seven people have died from an outbreak of cholera.

Nearly half of Liberia's 2.6 million people have sought refuge from seven years of civil war in Monrovia.

After eight days of continuous gunfire and sporadic shelling, aid workers said they were pulling out because of the "absolute anarchy".

The United Nations and the Red Cross were forced to withdraw when looters overran their offices, they said, making it impossible for them to remain. "It has been a bloody nightmare," said Tsukasa Kimoto, of the UN World Food Programme. "The UN system as a whole is completely destroyed by looters."

Even Medecins sans Frontieres said it was planning to pull out its team. Like the Red Cross, the international aid group works in dangerous, violent conditions and is traditionally among the last to leave areas of conflict.

No one knows how many people have been killed in recent days, although dozens of decaying bodies have been seen on the streets and at least 20 people were confirmed dead.

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