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Peace Mission in Liberia: Background

August 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The arrival of a handful of U.S. Marines and several hundred additional Nigerian peacekeepers could help bring stability to war torn Liberia, as could the departure of President Charles Taylor. For an update on the situation there, we turn to Somini Sengupta of the New York Times reporting from Monrovia. I spoke to her by phone earlier today.

RAY SUAREZ: Somini Sengupta, welcome. What’s the latest word concerning the on-again/off- again resignation and departure of Charles Taylor from Liberia?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: The last update on that is that he will submit his resignation formally to the Liberian house of representatives tomorrow, and he will formally hand over the presidency on Monday, midday. And it is still unknown when Charles Taylor will actually leave the country, if he will leave the country.

RAY SUAREZ: One thing he’s asked for is a dropping of the war crimes charges against him. Is there any indication from any party that that’s a hard-and- fast thing and unless he gets that official word, he won’t leave the country?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: He has never said that explicitly himself. His aides have suggested it. They have also… his attorneys have also filed a case in the international court of justice for the indictment against him to be dropped. This indictment is in connection with his alleged role in supporting a rebel group in neighboring Sierra Leone in that country’s very brutal and devastating ten-year-long civil war. So it remains to be seen whether he will actually hold out for any movement on that indictment. The special court in Sierra Leone, which is an independent court backed by the United Nations, its prosecutor has made it very plain that he’s not about to drop this indictment or make any amendments to this indictment anytime soon.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s move on to the American troops now present in the country. Exactly how many are there, and what are they supposed to be doing?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: That’s a good question. About a half dozen of them landed today, about half a dozen marines. They went to meet with the West African troops; they went to meet with their commanders at the airport just outside the city. They have not been available to speak to us today, and so we really have no idea what half a dozen American marines are going to be able to do in restoring peace to Liberia.

There’s a ship somewhere off the coast, we think about 50 miles off the coast of Liberia, with some 3,000 American troops. Whether and when they will ever come ashore again remains a mystery. Those are decisions that Washington is evidently making, and we’re still in the dark about that.

RAY SUAREZ: What do the Liberians make of this? They were said to be fairly impatient, at one point, waiting for the Americans to make some kind of arrival in the capital.

SOMINI SENGUPTA: I think Liberians that I’ve talked to on the streets have grown weary asking for, begging for American intervention. At this point what you will hear on the streets here is great anticipation; not yet quite a sense of relief, but certainly great anticipation that West African forces will start deploying very, very soon and will start securing the city so people can move around; so they can cross the bridges from one side of the city that’s held by the government to the other side of the city, which is held by rebels;

RAY SUAREZ: Word reaching the United States about Monrovia, not the rest of the country, indicates that a lull in the fighting has accompanied the arrival of the small Nigerian contingent. Has that lull made it possible to get humanitarian supplies into a city that evidently needs them pretty badly?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: Well, the only way the humanitarian supplies can be brought in here right now is by plane, and that’s obviously prohibitively expensive. You can only bring small amounts of things at a time.

So some humanitarian supplies have been flown in by international aid agencies, but the port is really the vital… is a vital thing. If things come into the port, if goods come into the port now, they are only available to the side of the city, the half of the city that’s controlled by the rebels. I crossed over onto the rebel- held side yesterday and got just a very stark, stark shot of this. They have a makeshift hospital in a brewery on that side.

Surgeries are being done by local community nurses. They have no painkillers left; they have no antibiotics left, very few antibiotics left; they’re low on sutures and bandages; and they’ve got wounded soldiers and civilians laying on the floor of this brewery.

But food is in abundant supply over on that side. Rice is cheap. Fuel is cheap. Meanwhile, on this side, on the government side, fuel costs $30 a gallon on the government side of the city, and that just gives you some idea of how completely dysfunctional, I mean, how completely impossible it is for ordinary people to survive here.

RAY SUAREZ: From Monrovia, Somini Sengupta of the New York Times. Thanks a lot.