It started with a cross-border incident on Christmas Eve, when a small force of rebels entered the West African state of Liberia from the Ivory Coast. Their leader was a disgruntled former government official seeking to overthrow President Samuel Doe. The rebels numbered only 100, but, in the five months since, that incursion has grown into a massive rebellion and the bloodiest conflict in the country’s 143-year history. Late last week, as rebels closed in on Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, Washington sent a naval task force to the area. Its mission was to evacuate more than 1,100 U.S. citizens, as well as other foreigners including 17 Canadians, from the encircled city if their safety were endangered. American officials said the presence of 2,100 marines, aboard four support ships equipped with landing craft and escorted by a small aircraft carrier, might also warn both Doe and rebel leader Charles Taylor to protect foreigners, making an evacuation unnecessary.
But, in fact, neither leader seemed to be in full control of his forces. Last Wednesday, Doe’s troops burst into a United Nations compound in Monrovia and killed a UN guard before abducting and murdering a number of native refugees who had taken shelter there. Meanwhile, Taylor’s advancing rebels were threatening civilian traffic on the road connecting the capital to the international airport 80 km to the southeast. So far, at least 1,000 people have been killed in the rebellion, most of them civilians slain by government troops in reprisal for their alleged support of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front.
Relief workers say that Doe’s troops have machine-gunned and burned entire villages, shooting and bayonetting civilians indiscriminately and sending thousands of refugees across Liberia’s northern borders into the Ivory Coast and Guinea. Foreign diplomats in Monrovia said that the brutality of the 7,000man army was driving members of two important tribes into Taylor’s camp, and turning his initial incursion into a tribal war that now threatens Doe’s very survival.
Taylor himself has no tribal affiliations. He is a U.S.-educated descendant of freed American slaves who founded the country in 1847. Although those descendants make up only four per cent of Liberia’s population of 2.5 million,
they governed the country until Doe, then an illiterate 28-year-old army master sergeant, seized power in a 1980 coup. He consolidated his oppressive regime by packing the army with members of his own Krahn tribe.
The United States, which traditionally has close economic, cultural and political links with Liberia, provided nearly $600 million in aid to the Doe regime in the early 1980s. But Washington sharply reduced the aid program after reports of widespread human rights abuses, including a wave of army atrocities against rival Gio and Mano tribespeople following an unsuccessful 1985 attempt to overthrow Doe.
The Gios and Manos now form the backbone of Taylor’s support, and his ragtag forces control an estimated half of the 37,800-squaremile country. But public confidence in the 42year-old Taylor, a devout Baptist, may be easily shaken. He was a close associate of Doe’s in the early 1980s, heading Liberia’s central purchasing agency until, surrounded by scandal, he fled to the United States in 1983, accused of embezzling more than $1 million. Since his return to lead the rebellion in 1989, Taylor has given provocative radio interviews that many Liberians say were intended to stir up tribal animosities in order to gain support. But as a former opposition figure now living in the United States said recently, on condition of anonymity, “Even if Satan came to replace Doe, he would be like an angel in the eyes of Liberians.”
In April, as the rebels made dramatic advances and threatened the country’s main port, Buchanan, foreign governments advised all their nonessential nationals to leave. At that time, there were about 100 Canadians in Liberia, most of them missionaries and church workers, as well as a few businessmen. By last week, said an External Affairs official in Ottawa, only about 35 Canadians remained, including the 17 in Monrovia. By agreement with Washington, they would be evacuated along with U.S. citizens.
Meanwhile, as the rebels moved closer, the capital was gripped by fear of tribal massacres. About 2,000 Gios and Manos besieged the UN compound seeking refuge from Krahn soldiers, while dozens of Mandingos in the capital, who are allied to the Krahns, were trying to flee the country to escape the advancing rebels.
Doe’s behavior appeared to be increasingly erratic. Last week, he called in foreign diplomats and told them that he would never step down. “Tough times never last. Tough people do,” he said. But, the next day, he announced his “firm decision” not to run in the elections scheduled for 1991. Said Doe: “I am a leader, not a destroyer.” He also declared his approval of the U.S. decision to send the task force. “We are friends of the United States,” he said, “and all your fears must be allayed. That [U.S.] government will do nothing to harm the people of this country.” For Doe, the U.S. marines off Liberia’s coast last week certainly posed less cause for alarm than the rebel forces advancing on the capital.
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