Global Policy Forum

Liberia-UN Hints at Further Delay to Start of Disarmament

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
February 13, 2004

The UN military commander in Liberia hinted on Friday that the start of a campaign to disarm the country's three warring parties would be further delayed, possibly until April. General Daniel Opande, the Force Commander of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), declined to give an exact date for the start of disarmament.

But after a meeting in Abidjan with the heads of the UN military missions in Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire, Opande said disarmament could not begin until UNMIL's peacekeeping force reached its full strength of 15,000 men and had deployed throughout the country. That might not happen until April, he added.

"Yes we are going to reactivate the disarmament very, very soon in Liberia. I won't give you that date because as we speak now, I don't really have the date yet," the Kenyan general said. "I'm confident that within a few weeks and hopefully by the end of April we will be fully deployed throughout the country in all the areas that we intended to and we will be in a much better position to respond to the majority of your concerns," Opande said. "Until we do that, there will still be isolated cases of disturbances especially when the combatants still have weapons," he added.

UNMIL currently has 11,500 men on the ground, but has yet to venture into Lofa County, a stronghold of the LURD rebel movement in the northwest, or into Rivercess, Grand Kru, Maryland and Grand Geddeh counties in the southeast, which are occupied by MODEL, another rebel group.

UNMIL tried unsuccessfully to launch a disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation programme in December, when it had only 5,000 troops on the ground and contolled little more than the capital Monrovia and its airport. However, the programme was suspended after only 10 days following riots by fighters demanding cash for handing in their guns. At least nine people were killed in those disturbances. UNMIL said then it would resume the DDR programme on January 20, but that date came and went with only an information campaign being launched to try and tell an estimated 53,000 combatants about how disarmament would work. The peacekeeping force said at the time that it would start collecting weapons and registering former fighters by late February.

But an UNMIL spokesman said in Monrovia on Friday that work had not yet started on building four cantonment camps for demobilised fighters. One of these is due to be established on the outskirts of the capital. Two will be set up in the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) strongholds of Tubmanburg and Gbarnga . Another is planned for the port city of Buchanan, which is controlled by MODEL (Movement for Democracy in Liberia). Lieutentant Colonel Borje Johansson told IRIN that consultations between UNMIL and the three warring factions about the construction of these cantonment sites was still going on.

"There are more practical things that need to be done for the establishment of cantonment areas like the identification of suitable areas and building up the camps, all those things are being worked out between the warring parties and UNMIL", he said. Like Opande, he declined to predict when the process of handing in guns would begin. "Because we are in a preparatory period, I can not give you exact date on the physical disarmament exercise. We need to properly plan the program to avoid the incidents that occurred during the beginning of the disarmament in December," Johansson said. However Johansson indicated that it would not start before late March at the earliest.

"Before we can start the disarmament, we have to make sure that sufficient troops are in the country and deployed all over to ensure security during the disarmament. We are still receiving troops and hopefully, if all goes well, we expect the deployment of troops all over by mid or late March," he told IRIN.

One of the key items on the agenda of the UN military summit in Abidjan was the huge difference in the amount of money being offered to fighters who come forward to be disarmed in Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire. UNMIL is offering Liberian combatants a demobilisation allowance of US$300. However, this is three times less than the US$900 which will eventually be offered to each fighter in Cote d'Ivoire, a wealthier country which enjoys a far higher standard of living than Liberia.

The force commanders remained tight-lipped on this issue, but Opande said they would share their views with the political leaders of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire and the UN heads of mission in these countries. "As to whether the disparity from country to country can create a problem, I think that is anybody's guess I wouldn't want to be the specialist in saying yes or no," Opande said. But he stressed; "We don't consider the money given to combatants as buying guns....That is not our purpose. We consider the money as a reinsertion benefit so that they can immediately begin to take care of their own lives."

Opande said UNMIL recognised that the export of diamonds and timber, in contravention of a UN embargo, had fuelled conflict in Liberia. He said one of UNMIL's tasks was to ensure that whatever natural resources left the country did so legally after taxes had been paid to the government. "But until we deploy throughout the country, there will be still be some natural resources that will leave the borders of Liberia unchecked by us," he acknowledged, adding that the income from such smuggling could "fuel more trouble for Liberia or other countries."

"We recognise that some natural resources are easy to track but others like diamonds are difficult to track. We are going to work very closely with the government of Liberia to assist them in tracking and interdicting those who are taking some of the natural resources that we can track," he added.

Earlier this week, a Liberian environmentalist group disclosed that its monitors had recently seen timber being felled, sawn, processed into plywood and stored near the eastern border with Cote d'Ivoire in preparation for export through the MODEL-controlled port of Harper.

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