TOPICS > Nation

Turmoil in Liberia

July 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

LOUISE BATES: Mortar shells have hit the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. The U.S. Military officials said one round hit a building in the compound. Shells also landed around diplomatic residential compound where 10,000 Liberians are seeking shelter. One shell hit the compound located across the street from the embassy, killing at least 25. Distraught Liberians lined up 18 bodies in front of the embassy building. Residents ran for cover as rebel fighters and those loyal to President Charles Taylor engaged in a battle for the city. Taylor has vowed to fight to the last man in Monrovia, his only remaining strong hold.

PRESIDENT CHARLES TAYLOR: We will fight street to street, house to house,.

LOUISE BATES: Mortars pounded the capital for two hours. Earlier 41 U.S. Marines flew in to strengthen security at the embassy compound.

LT. COMDR. TERENCE DULEY, U.S. Navy: We’re inserting 41 U.S. Marines from the free anti-terrorism security team, into the U.S. Embassy compound.

LOUISE BATES: The marines are assisting with evacuations. Helicopters took 25 to 30 foreign aid workers and some foreign journalists to safety.

GWEN IFILL: For the latest on the developments inside Monrovia, we’re joined by Ann Simmons of the Los Angeles Times. She joins us by phone from that city. Ann, we have seen and we have heard about what looks like chaos going on right now in Monrovia. Describe the scene to us.

ANN SIMMONS: It’s been a very intense day, Gwen. There has been a lot of mortar fire, gunfire, grenades, basically shells raining throughout the city. There have been a lot of lives lost. The last count we’ve gotten, it’s been 90 dead and more than 300 injured. Mortars have been basically raining down on Monrovia today. There is chaos. Civilians are running, scrambling, basically, to find shelter. Many of them have moved into the compounds of housing complexes, into schools and other public buildings. Many of them have found refuge not too far from the U.S. Embassy compound. But it’s not safe at all, because there’s no telling where a mortar might drop.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the U.S. Embassy compound. That’s where there was so much activity today: Bodies being piled up outside the door, mortar was falling directly. Has the U.S. Embassy compound ever been involved in this, as long as this uprising has been going on?

ANN SIMMONS: Well, officials have said that until today the U.S. Embassy compound had not really taken any fire. It certainly had not been hit by a shell. The commissary, in fact, was hit today by a shell, and there were several mortars that fell around the building. Now, the embassy officials had said that they had a few stray bullets come into the compound, but certainly they had never experienced this kind of a barrage, so this is new.

GWEN IFILL: We had heard, and certainly reported, that Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, had made a deal with the president of Nigeria to accept exile there. Yet he seems to be sticking, literally, by his guns and staying in Monrovia. Where was he during all this today?

ANN SIMMONS: As far as we know, the president is still in Monrovia. He has not made an appearance, so it’s difficult to say exactly what his whereabouts are right now. President Taylor has said that he is going to stick by his people. On Saturday he said that he and his men were going to fight street to street, door to door, until these rebels had been crushed. He does not intend to leave Monrovia, according to him… according to his words, until peacekeepers have arrived. So for the time being, President Taylor is certainly still entrenched in Monrovia.

GWEN IFILL: And President Bush has said he won’t send peacekeepers until Charles Taylor has left. Is there resentment that’s building in that country at all towards the United States for not having moved… sent peacekeepers or any kind of military in so far to guard anything aside from their own property?

ANN SIMMONS: Oh, most definitely. There’s a rising level of frustration and disappointment. Everyone you talk to on the streets of Liberia will say, “Please, let the U.S. send troops; let them send troops to help us get out of this mess.” They consider themselves to be a colony of the United States. As you know, the country was settled by freed American slaves. And many people here consider the U.S. to be a big brother of Liberia. There is growing resentment.

In fact, today there were several people hurling stones and rocks at the embassy compound building. Others were screaming that the U.S. has blood on its hands. And that was one of the reasons why they decided to pile up the bodies in front of the U.S. Embassy. It was more of a statement to say, “Look, this is what’s happening here, and we feel abandoned.” And people you talk to on the streets will say that. They feel abandoned, they feel the U.S. has forsaken them.

GWEN IFILL: What happened to the plan to involve other West African countries in kind of a regional peacekeeping force to help stem some of this violence?

ANN SIMMONS: As far as it stands, Gwen, that plan still stands. But there has been no exact date as to when peacekeepers from the neighboring West African countries might come in. There is still a level of hesitation. And ECOWAS, which is basically the regional economic and peacekeeping force in the region, has pledged troops to this operation. But there is still no indication as to when those troops might arrive. But there is still no indication as to when those troops might arrive. Many Liberians will tell you at the moment we want any kind of peacekeepers to come in, but many of them feel that the U.S. is more reliable, and they have more trust in the U.S. because of their experience with ECOMUG forces in the past in the early ’90s. Many of them believe that ECOMUG or West African peacekeepers may give some kind of cover to President Charles Taylor, so they really want the U.S.

GWEN IFILL: Everybody is waiting on the U.S., it sounds like.

ANN SIMMONS: That’s correct, Gwen, and that’s what you will hear today on the streets of Monrovia. And to be honest, there was a lot of excitement and a lot of welcoming, greetings from Liberians on the streets for expatriates in general, and especially for Americans. And that has turned a little sour. Now people are saying, “What’s going on? Why have we been forgotten? Don’t we count?”

GWEN IFILL: All right. Ann Simmons from the Los Angeles Times. Stay safe.

ANN SIMMONS: Thanks very much, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for the humanitarian situation in Monrovia. For that, we’re joined by Muktar Farah. He heads the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Liberia. He was evacuated earlier today with the rest of the U.N.’s international staff, from Liberia to neighboring sierra Leone. He joins us by phone from that country’s capital, Freetown.

Welcome, Mr. Farah.

MUKTAR FARAH: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: How was the evacuation today? We have seen the reports of much… of mortar shelling, gunfire, of pretty much chaos in Liberia’s capital. How dangerous was it for you to evacuate?

MUKTAR FARAH: Yeah, it was really very dangerous. I left Monrovia seven hours ago when the fighting has intensified. Heavy mortar shells falling in various parts of the city as well as gunfire, wounding houses of residents in the city.

GWEN IFILL: From the point of view of what you were there to do, which is to say the humanitarian work, what was the situation in Monrovia as you left today?

MUKTAR FARAH: The situation was really desperate. We have 100,000 IDPs [Internally Displaced People] presently trying to seek protection around the U.S. Embassy in buildings where basically there is no water, there is no electricity. And the food has been running out generally in the whole of the city. We humanitarian workers are not able to reach this population because of the fighting. And we are fearing that soon we will be seeing… if this war is not stopped.

Recently, cholera was in the increase. Malaria has been claiming the most vulnerable, children particularly, and now with no food and water and sanitation, the situation is pretty desperate. The humanitarian community, or the international community, should do something to stop the war in Liberia.

GWEN IFILL: So when you talk about cholera and you talk about hunger, it’s hard to prioritize, I know, but what would you say would be the most critical concerns that should be… that you say the international community should be addressing first?

MUKTAR FARAH: The first thing is to really, to protect the civilians. The civilians have really seen the fighting into various parts of the city, and some of them are also left the city, going out of the city, basically nowhere where there no shelter, there’s no food, there’s no water and sanitation. So really the priority right now is an international force to go into the city and secure all the areas where the civilian population are sheltered.

GWEN IFILL: You left today. Are there any other humanitarian workers still on the ground?

MUKTAR FARAH: Yes. We have the Red Cross, who are busy at the hospital – the main hospital in Monrovia, which is right now overwhelmed. We have some who have basically turned their houses into hospitals to respond to the situation.

Right now, the only response we’re doing is to address the emergency health needs of the population. We are not able to provide water because we are not able to move anymore to reach this population. So all the food we have in our warehouses at the port, we are not able to reach, so the food situation in general in the city is desperate. And this might really cause a humanitarian disaster, as I said earlier.

GWEN IFILL: I know you’re talking about what happened in the city, in the country’s capital of Monrovia, which is of course where you were. Is there any way to know what’s happening outside of the capital?

MUKTAR FARAH: Well, outside of the capital at the moment, the situation really… the fighting is mainly concentrated in Monrovia. We have not heard of any major fighting outside in the counties. But even there, the humanitarian community was not able to access this location. Basically 80 percent of the country was not accessible. We have IDPs [Internally Displaced People], refugees as well, outside the city, whom we are not able to access at the moment.

You can imagine we have not been able to access there for one month. These people are basically foraging for food. They were basically depending on the humanitarian assistance being provided by the humanitarian agencies on the ground. So even out there in the counties the situation is desperate. People cannot farm. They have no means to really survive.

GWEN IFILL: And how much time do you think before something has to happen? How quickly does something have to happen from the outside?

MUKTAR FARAH: We will estimate that something has to happen in two days’ time, really, to save more people from dying. We are looking particularly at the most vulnerable – children under five – and they will be dying in thousands due to malnutrition, cholera, malaria, as the most, you know, diseases that is total for this vulnerable population.

GWEN IFILL: All right. Muktar Farah, From the U.N., thank you very much for joining us.