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Shaky security in Liberia sparks fears ahead of key polls

MONROVIA, Oct 8 – UN and regional security forces are on high alert ahead of Liberia’s second post-war polls Tuesday, amid fears over weapons and mercenaries circulating after recent conflict in neighbouring Ivory Coast.

Liberia still relies heavily on a UN peacekeeping mission (UNMIL) to secure its fragile peace, eight years after it emerged from one of Africa’s bloodiest wars in 2003, in which some 250,000 were killed.

The 8,000-strong UNMIL force has boosted border security as has the UN mission in Ivory Coast, and defence chiefs from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria have pledged to send at least 540 police and 280 gendarmes to assist in securing the polls.

“The fallout from the Ivorian crisis is primarily that combatants have crossed the border,” Ellen Margrethe Loej, the special representative of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Liberia, told AFP in a telephone interview.

“Some have been arrested, some are in camps, probably some are also in the forest that we don’t know about.”

She said these mercenaries were not only Ivorians, but also Liberians who had been hired to fight in the neighbouring conflict and were returning to their own country.

Loej said another major concern was that these fighters had hidden weapons along the border or brought them into the country.

“We don’t know what their intentions are. It could be they want to hand in their weapons, it could be they want to create trouble in relation to the elections.”

She said the porous border, basically a river running through very dense rainforest, was “a volatile place” and extremely difficult to secure.

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“That is why the UN missions in Liberia and Ivory Coast have increased co-operation along the border in terms of exchanging information, co-ordinating patrols and monitoring the border from the air.”

Along with fears of instability as a result of post-poll violence in Ivory Coast, which left some 3,000 dead earlier this year, observers have raised serious concerns about ongoing crime and violence in Liberia.

An Amnesty International report published earlier this year warned that despite progress made in improving the human rights situation, violent crime, including rape and sexual violence, remained high.

“There are serious problems within the criminal justice system, with allegations of police inefficiency, brutality and corruption …”

UNMIL, which has assisted Liberia in building its security institutions since the end of the war, recently had its mandate extended for another year.

“It is very important Liberia assumes greater responsibility for their own security,” said Loej.

“We (UNMIL) train police officers and that is fine and good … but they lack mobility, they lack communication, in order to deploy to areas outside Monrovia and there is still a lot to be done.”

The Liberian army, which has been created from scratch and trained by an American company, is still not operational.

West African expert and researcher Lansana Gberie wrote in a recent report: “Liberia remains a highly volatile and deeply divided nation. Ethnic and religious tensions remain high and these sometimes explode into violence.

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“Armed robbery and rape remain persistent and security forces are incapable of checking crime.”

Loej commended political leaders for a strong message to voters on “how important it is that Liberia moves forward and not backward.”

“We have to be prepared. All the political rallies up to now have been very peaceful but we also know from our ordinary work, every so often we have a mob violence situation, if someone is dissatisfied it can very easily escalate.”

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