Mon, Jul 28, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Skepticism over US pledge

PROMISES, PROMISES The US president might have promised peacekeepers for Liberia but few believe he will risk American lives amid the current mayhem

THE OBSERVER , MONROVIA

A church packed with civilians turned into a slaughterhouse yesterday when fresh fighting between Liberian rebels and government forces rained shells on the capital Monrovia.

Entire families were wiped out when mortars hit the Greater Refuge Church, killing 15 and wounding dozens in a dawn barrage.

"People are still crying. Rockets have been falling all around us," said survivor Kate Wright.

During a lull in fighting, wailing relatives laid out the dead -- among them a husband, wife and their children -- in front of the church.

Few expected the latest rebel ceasefire announced on Friday to be respected but there had been some hope that Washington's dispatch of US troops would encourage both sides to ease the carnage. Saturday's atrocity destroyed that hope and it was business as usual for Monrovia: civilians digging another mass grave as gunfire crackled across different parts of the city.

Typically for this west African country's chaotic civil war, it was not clear which side had fired at the church, or why.

Most fighting appeared to focus on the port, held by rebels, and three bridges -- Stockton Creek, Johnson and Old Bridge -- leading to the city centre, one of the last pockets held by President Charles Taylor's forces.

Monrovia is playing a grim waiting game since President George Bush's announcement that 2,200 Marines would arrive within a fortnight in a three-ship convoy.

The move followed intense international pressure for the US to deploy peacekeepers but Bush, cautioned by Pentagon officials who fear another Somalia, avoided saying whether the Marines would disembark or merely stay offshore as back-up for Nigerian peacekeepers.

"Until we see it with our own eyes, US troops on the ground for peace, then we will not believe they are here for us," said Sylvester Blamo, one of thousands sheltering near the US Embassy.

Having celebrated several weeks ago over false rumors that US troops had already landed in the country, Monrovia's mood yesterday was skeptical.

It was also tinged with anger that fighting has killed several hundred people in recent weeks and that disease, thirst and hunger have worsened.

"You see, everybody is looking to George W. Bush," said city resident Bill Jacobs. "But I think it's only God can solve our problem right now, because we have to depend on Bush for a long time, man."

Monrovia's residents call the three rebel attacks since June on the capital World War I, World War II, and World War III. Shelling on Friday left at least 26 dead and 200 wounded.

The British government welcomed Washington's announcement but non-governmental organizations worried that the commitment was vague.

"People are dying here every day. The Americans must play a leading role in an immediate peacekeeping intervention," said Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.

A nation founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia's conflict is widely held to be Washington's responsibility, much in the way Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast calmed after British and French intervention.

Nigeria has told the UN that a vanguard battalion can deploy by Saturday, with a mission to separate the warring sides and enable humanitarian assistance.

But there are signs that the months of dithering by west African states and the US could continue. Some UN officials privately say that squabbles over funding and reinforcements will force Monrovia to wait even longer.

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