Reprisal threat after Liberia massacre

THE latest Liberian massacre, this time of 250 refugees at the weekend, pointed up the bankruptcy of West African efforts to end the four-year civil war and threatened to set off a new offensive by the Nigerian-led intervention force against Charles Taylor's insurgents.

The West African intervention force, known as Ecomog, immediately blamed Mr Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) for the murders and mutilation of men, women and children war refugees living at the abandoned Firestone rubber plantation near Harbel, about 40 miles (65km) north of Monrovia.

'They were shot, they were mutilated and some of them had their heads broken and their throats cut,' Augustine Mahiga, a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official in Monrovia, told reporters.

'So these people who came wanted the rice and they ordered every person to come out of the camps. Then there was random shooting,' he said. 'I wasn't there at the scene but what I saw this afternoon was very gruesome, horrible.' Witnesses said the NPFL carried out the raid, Mr Mahiga reported, but there was no hard evidence to link the organisation with the massacre. Mr Taylor, in an interview with the BBC, denied responsibility for the killings and said the accusations would be used to justify an Ecomog offensive.

Harbel, controlled since February by Ecomog forces and their allied Liberian militias, the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and the United Liberation Movement (Ulimo), was the site of an Ecomog bombing raid last October when cluster bombs killed 24 and wounded 150 people. The bombing of Harbel, close to Robertsfield International Airport, took place one week after Mr Taylor broke a ceasefire and attempted to capture Monrovia. Since then, employing jet bombers, tanks and assistance from the AFL and Ulimo militias, Ecomog has scored gains against the NPFL, capturing the strategic port of Buchanan early last month.

In recent weeks, however, Mr Taylor's young, highly mobile fighters have infiltrated Ecomog-controlled territory and attacked behind the lines. Mr Taylor, who led a rebellion in 1989 to oust the former military dictator Samuel Doe, has said he would only consider a ceasefire once the 16,000-strong Nigerian contingent in Ecomog is reduced. He has urged the UN to take over the peace effort.

Ecomog has attempted to tighten an economic noose around the 50 per cent of Liberia that remains in NPFL hands, a territory popularly known as 'Taylorland', by halting all shipments of food aid through neighbouring countries and by bombing international aid convoys which violate the ban. Trucks of the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres were attacked last month. The top UN representative in Monrovia, Ross Mountain of New Zealand, was recalled after criticising the Ecomog plan to channel all aid shipments through Monrovia before moving across rebel lines.

One UN spokesman said Mr Mountain's removal was requested by the interim government of President Amos Sawyer, but Mr Mountain himself later denied it.

Mr Sawyer's Ecomog-protected government last week imposed press censorship, saying all war-related stories must be submitted to the ministries of justice and information.

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