Global Policy Forum

New War at Home for Rebel-Backing Taylor


By Lutz Kleveman *

Daily Telegraph
May 17, 2001

A leader of Sierra Leone's rebel movement has admitted that President Charles Taylor of Liberia supported and even directly controlled the rebels. Omri Golley, head of the Revolutionary United Front delegation in peace talks with the Sierra Leone government, told The Daily Telegraph: "Taylor was in complete control of the RUF until about two weeks ago. He decided everything the RUF did."

Mr Golley conceded that Mr Taylor recently cut his ties and support for the rebels in an effort to comply with the demands of the United Nations. But the RUF leader said the Liberian warlord-turned-president had exploited the RUF's control of Sierra Leone's diamond mines since December 1998 for his own profit. "We now feel abused by him, especially economically," he said.

The RUF leader's statement came shortly after the UN Security Council imposed British-sponsored sanctions on Liberia in an effort to quell the civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Reports from the region yesterday suggested that the RUF and Sierra Leone government forces had agreed to start disarming this week to secure a ceasefire.

These positive signs come as Liberia appears to be moving in the other direction, with Mr Taylor, one of Liberia's most brutal faction leaders in its own civil war before his election in 1997, facing new fighting which threatens to engulf his impoverished country. The insurgents have gained control of much of Lofa county in the north. Even state-controlled media last week admitted that government forces were in retreat. Foreign diplomats were officially advised not to travel outside Monrovia, or within the capital at night.

On the road leading to the new war zone, the military, police and fighters of the infamous Anti-Terrorist Unit set up checkpoints to keep rebels from infiltrating the capital. Lorries full of heavily armed soldiers raced eastwards, past charred and bullet-riddled ruins and giant propaganda billboards extolling Mr Taylor.

In Gbanga, Mr Taylor's headquarters during the civil war of the 1990s and now the country's second capital, people were preparing to flee. Refugees from Lofa county were streaming out of the bush, carrying no luggage except for the clothes on their gaunt bodies. In a refugee camp west of Gbanga, hastily set up by the UN-run World Food Programme, about 15,000 people, most of them women and children, clustered around the buildings of a former ATU training college.

The Taylor regime has accused neighbouring Sierra Leone and Guinea, and indirectly Britain, of backing the uprising. Captured rebels who were paraded on television "confessed" that they had been armed and trained by the British troops stationed in Sierra Leone. When asked for an independent interview, the state authorities were unable to produce any of the alleged rebel prisoners alive.

The conflict in Liberia came as sanctions - a 12-month embargo on diamond exports and a travel ban on senior government officials - were imposed on the country after UN reports accused Mr Taylor of diamond smuggling and gun running to help the RUF, which is linked to widespread atrocities in Sierra Leone over the past decade.

In early March, Mr Taylor was given two months to show he had cut all ties with the RUF. The UN now says that he has not proved his innocence. The Liberian government denies that it ever helped the RUF, calling the sanctions "unjust and unfair". It claims that it froze the bank accounts of senior rebels, banned the import of uncertified diamonds and expelled an RUF leader known as Commander Mosquito. "The UN never set up an independent and transparent mechanism to verify that we had complied with their demands," said Reginald Goodrich, the Information Minister. "The sanctions seem to have been entirely premeditated. All the allegations are absurd."

Coupled with the fighting, the imposition of sanctions has seen Mr Taylor's regime slipping into paranoia. The prevailing insecurity was starkly highlighted on a street just below the presidential mansion. A jeep driven by ATU members crashed into a civilian vehicle, sending its driver through the windscreen. Within two minutes some 50 other sinister-looking ATU soldiers, menacing scorpion badges displayed on their olive-green combat uniforms, rushed down the hill from the mansion. Shouting and brandishing machine-guns to keep the crowd around the scene in check, the ATU men fetched their colleagues and sped back inside the mansion compound. "They take no chances," said a passer-by.

*Lutz Kleveman was arrested and expelled while compiling this report

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