Factions carve up Liberia and restart fighting: Richard Dowden on the armies that are clashing over a country trapped in a long night of war

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The Independent Online
IN THE WEEK when Liberia should have held a general election, its warlords signed a deal carving up the country among themselves - and promptly restarted the war.

Heavy fighting was reported yesterday in several parts of Liberia, including the capital, Monrovia, where soldiers from one faction tried to seize control of government buildings. The attackers were surrounded by troops from the African Ecomog peace- keeping force, who pounded the buildings with mortars, cannon and shells from gunboats. 'They're throwing everything they've got at it, I doubt anyone's left alive in there,' one relief worker said.

The Ecomog commander, Major-General John Inienger, said last night that security was established in the capital.

For five years the remains of this West African state have been fought over by three undisciplined and increasingly factionalised armies. Founded for freed slaves from America last century, Liberia was supposed to be a beacon of freedom and a base for the Christianisation of West Africa. As its name suggests, freedom was its raison d'etre: its symbol was a dove on the wing with an open scroll in its claws; and, its motto was 'Love of Liberty brought us here'.

These founding ideals have been mocked by the chaotic, barbarous war in which more than a hundred thousand civilians have been slaughtered, and thousands more driven from their homes. Nearly two thirds of the 2.5 million population are said to be displaced, many of them fleeing to neighbouring countries. The 10,000-strong West African peace-keeping force, acting under a United Nations mandate since 1990, has failed to maintain peace, and some observers argue that some units have taken sides and prolonged the war. Numerous ceasefires have broken down. 'The situation is becoming more factionalised, more tribalised and bloodier,' said one aid worker.

Last week the leaders of the three main factions met in central Ghana to talk peace. After five days, Charles Taylor of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, Alhaji Kromah of the United Liberation Movement, Ulimo, and Hezekiah Bowen of the Armed Forces of Liberia declared a ceasefire. They removed the interim civilian government established in 1993, and replaced the five- man civilian presidency with representatives of each of their movements.

The accord was witnessed by the UN Special Representative, Trevor Gordon- Somers, representatives of the West African peace-keeping force, and Ghana. But those Liberians who want their country freed from all the warlords - and their thugs - condemned the accord. At the national conference in Monrovia, representatives chanted 'No, No, No', when they were told that the faction leaders were to replace the joint civilian presidency. Most of Liberia's press opposed the move.

AFL soldiers also felt excluded by the Akosombo deal and tried to seize the capital yesterday. The AFL is technically the national army, but in fact is the rump of the private army of Samuel Doe, the president murdered in 1990, becoming yet another faction without political leadership.

Meanwhile Mr Taylor, the man who began the civil war by launching the rebellion five years ago, is facing a rebellion by his own forces. While he and the other leaders were having peace talks, there were reports that Gbanga, Mr Taylor's stronghold in central Liberia, had been taken over by dissidents from within his own movement. A coalition of rebels announced they had deposed the absent Mr Taylor and replaced him by Tom Woewiyu, his Defence Minister. However, UN intelligence reports shown to the Independent spoke of a build-up of arms and Ulimo troops in the area more than two weeks ago and warned of a surprise attack on Gbanga. There are also reports that Ulimo fighters are helping their ethnic counterparts in the NPFL to get rid of Mr Taylor.

An Ecomog convoy trying to leave Gbanga on Wednesday was ambushed and two Tanzanian soldiers were killed. The convoy, which has several foreign aid workers on board, including two Britons, was expected to try to get to Monrovia again last night.

Concern is also growing for the safety of 28 UN observers taken prisoner by Mr Taylor's forces; 43 were originally taken, but 15 have been released. A UN spokesman said he did not know where they were being held, but said they were living in 'desperate conditions'. On Tuesday the Security Council demanded their release. They are members of the 370-strong team sent in 1993 to supervise disarmament and prepare for elections. Other members of the team have gone to Ivory Coast and the rest of the UN team may be withdrawn.

(Photograph omitted)