Mon, Jul 14, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Liberian militia demand payment

AP , MONROVIA,

Ex-combatants claiming they have been poorly treated and not paid protest outside the US embassy in the Liberian capital Monrovia on Friday.

PHOTO: AP

"Jimmyboy" fought for warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor for 14 years, first as a teenage rebel, and later in his elite Anti-Terrorist Unit.

Now the 28-year-old wants to lay down his automatic rifle, but not before he receives -- or takes -- a "reward of service."

Taylor pledged last month to resign on condition peacekeepers are deployed. As a result, the feared and loathed militias that have been key to his survival through a decade of turmoil have begun to unravel, combatants and residents say. This raises the prospect of a gaping power vacuum -- and the possibility of renewed bloodshed.

Several current and former fighters interviewed by The Associated Press warned of a violent looting spree in the West African nation unless they receive retirement payoffs before the leader they affectionately call "Pappy" departs.

"Taylor is leaving us, and I have to think about my future," Jimmyboy said, his black bullet proof vest loaded with ammunition. "There will be trouble. We want a reward of service and we hope Pappy will give it to us.

"But if he doesn't, we will have to take it ourselves," added Jimmyboy, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his military nickname.

Threats like these from fighters who see no future without Taylor underline the urgency of appeals by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, European leaders and Liberians themselves for international peacekeepers to prevent a descent into anarchy.

"Everybody is concerned about what will happen between now and when the first peacekeepers arrive on the ground," said David Parker, British aid coordinator for the European Union in Monrovia.

US President George W. Bush, who wrapped up a five-day Africa tour on Saturday, is under increasing pressure to send troops to Liberia, founded 150 years ago by freed American slaves.

Since Monday, a team of US military advisers has visited Liberian refugee camps, ports and landing strips to assess the possibility of sending troops and humanitarian aid.

Taylor has promised to step down and accepted an asylum offer in Nigeria on condition peacekeepers are sent first to prevent a chaotic transition. Yet he has broken promises before and refuses to give a timetable for his departure.

Liberia's main rebel group on Friday threatened a "firefight" with any peacekeepers sent before Taylor resigns, a deployment they would regard as propping up his regime.

Among challenges facing an intervention force are Taylor's brutal, undisciplined private armies -- including the uniformed paramilitary Anti-Terrorist Unit, the police Special Operations Division, and numerous civilian militia units in T-shirts and bandanas.

Taylor created these groups to reinforce his grip on power in part because he was suspicious of the army, which includes former faction members who fought against him during the country's 1989 to 1996 civil war.

Untrained, undisciplined and often drunk or taking drugs, they answer directly to Taylor, and are virtually leaderless without him, observers say.

Members earn as little as 500 Liberian "unity dollars" -- or US$7 -- a month, and in the case of the many civilian militia fighters, nothing at all. Their guns are their main source of income -- allowing them to extort and loot from ordinary civilians in what is widely known as "Operation Pay Yourself."

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