Global Policy Forum

Liberia Reportedly Arming Guerrillas


By Douglas Farah

Washington Post
June 18, 2000

Sierra Leone's rebels have been freshly reinforced by Liberia with arms and recruits and are preparing to fight rather than let U.N. peacekeeping forces take over their diamond-mining strongholds, say Western intelligence officials and West African sources with direct knowledge of the events.

In the past two weeks, Liberian President Charles Taylor has sent several convoys of trucks loaded with weapons, food and medicine across the border to the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in the Kono region of northeastern Sierra Leone, according to the sources.

Taylor has also sponsored military training for several hundred RUF fighters at his own security forces' main camp, they said. Most of the reinforced RUF units are led by Sam Bockarie, a longtime rebel leader better known as Mosquito who is now living in Monrovia under Taylor's protection.

For months, Western military and intelligence officials have reported Taylor's tacit support for the rebels and friendship with their leaders. But in recent days intelligence officials, diplomats and sources with direct knowledge of RUF activities say his support has become more active and the threat of a wider regional war is growing. These sources say Taylor's recent reinforcement of the rebels is due to his determination to either maintain RUF control over the bulk of Sierra Leone's diamond fields, or back a new RUF escalation of the war. While Taylor acknowledges a friendship and historical ties with RUF leaders, he denies that he is arming the rebels now.

The rebels' support from Taylor and from the president of nearby Burkina Faso is the latest turn in nearly two decades of intertwined West African wars--conflicts that, at their inception, pitted brutal, corrupt U.S.-backed governments against revolutionaries trained and armed by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. In the 1980s and '90s, Gadhafi backed the rise of Taylor, RUF leader Foday Sankoh and the president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore. While Libya's influence has waned in recent years, its proteges still cooperate closely, intelligence analysts said.

The current crisis arose last month when Sankoh refused to disarm the RUF as called for in a July 1999 peace agreement. The situation deteriorated when the rebels kidnapped about 500 U.N. peacekeepers and Sankoh fled the capital. Taylor, under international pressure, secured the peacekeepers' release. Sankoh was arrested by government troops and remains in prison.

Last week, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told Parliament that "there is continuing evidence establishing close links between the rebels in Sierra Leone and supporters in Liberia." The European Union suspended $48 million in aid to Liberia to pressure it to halt what another British Foreign Office minister, Keith Vaz, called "the flow of illicit weapons to the [RUF] rebels . . . from outside."

Scholars and diplomats say Taylor backs the RUF because he profits from the sale of diamonds they mine, and because the rebels employ many of Taylor's impoverished former militia fighters, who otherwise would be a threat to his regime. "If you can't give Taylor what he gets from Sierra Leone, you can't give him anything and he won't stop," said Ibrahim Abdullah, a historian at South Africa's University of the Western Cape who studies the RUF and Liberia. "What he is getting from Sierra Leone is jobs for his boys and diamonds."

Confidential RUF documents found in Sankoh's house after he fled show he was shipping diamonds out of Sierra Leone through Liberia, with Taylor's knowledge. The documents also show that Sankoh was growing increasingly angry at Taylor because Taylor was taking 90 percent of the profits.

In an effort to protect his interests without escalating the war, Taylor, with Compaore's backing, has pushed for a truce in Sierra Leone that would leave the rebels in charge of the main diamond fields. That has been rejected by Sierra Leone and the region's major power, Nigeria, and tensions are growing.

Last week, senior officials in both Liberia and Sierra Leone warned that the war could spill into Liberia. Sierra Leone's deputy defense minister, Hinga Norman, said his troops would take on Taylor if necessary to finish off the rebels.

Daniel Chea, Liberia's defense minister, responded by warning Sierra Leone not to "threaten this country with war, especially one that you cannot win. . . . Stop blaming your war on Liberia."

Intelligence analysts and sources close to Taylor said he cannot allow the rebels to lose the war, in part because he has taken millions of dollars from foreign investors, in the form of licensing fees, to allow them to mine Sierra Leone's diamonds. "That is why he is pressing for a cease-fire, where the rebels control the mines, or there will be all-out war," said one source familiar with RUF operations.

Liberian Information Minister Joe Mulbah denied the allegations, telling the BBC recently that his government "has never sanctioned the traffic of diamonds or guns. We are not involved [in Sierra Leone] . . . and I challenge anyone to prove us wrong when we say we have nothing to do with diamond deals in Sierra Leone."

Sources with direct knowledge said mercenaries from South Africa and Burkina Faso who are working for Taylor have trained fighters under rebel leader Mosquito's command at Taylor's training camp in Gbtala, 90 miles northeast of Monrovia. They said Mosquito's men are equipped with surface-to-air missiles, assault rifles, antitank weapons and other arms from a 66-ton shipment that moved through Burkina Faso.

In Burkina Faso earlier this month, Compaore played host to senior RUF commanders to plan military and political strategy, diplomats and intelligence analysts said. In return for their support, Taylor and Compaore receive diamonds from the RUF, which are then sold on the international diamond market, intelligence sources and U.N. investigators said.

Taylor, Sankoh and Compaore have been linked since the mid-1980s, according to academics, intelligence analysts and participants in the early days of the revolutionary fervor that swept the region. Liberia's U.S.-backed dictator, Samuel Doe, accused Taylor, then a senior Liberian bureaucrat, of stealing government funds. When Taylor fled to the United States, he was arrested at Doe's request, but escaped to Burkina Faso.

According to historians and regional experts, Compaore enlisted Liberian aid in the killing of then-President Thomas Sankara, after which Compaore seized power in Burkina Faso.

Taylor launched his revolt against Doe in 1989, then helped Sankoh found the RUF in 1991. Compaore, Taylor and Sankoh, as well as many of their senior commanders, trained at Libya's World Revolutionary Headquarters in the 1980s. The Reagan administration regarded Libya as a primary sponsor of international terrorism and saw Doe as a reliable ally. It poured $500 million in aid into Doe's Liberia and pressured Nigeria and other pro-Western governments to intervene militarily, using Sierra Leone as a base, to fight Taylor. But Taylor ultimately fought to a draw, signed a cease-fire and won a presidential election in 1997.

Troops sent by Taylor and Compaore fought alongside the RUF in Sierra Leone, and the RUF helped Taylor's troops, while Compaore supplied both with a secure arms pipeline, according to investigators.

"The deal was that the RUF would help Taylor 'liberate' Liberia and afterward would provide a base for the RUF to enter Sierra Leone," said Abdullah. "When the RUF entered Sierra Leone there was a Burkinabe [Burkina Faso] force under their command that Taylor arranged to send in. All the arms for Taylor and the RUF came from Burkina Faso, and were bought in Ukraine. The payment for all this was diamonds that went through Liberia, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast." That basic route still works, intelligence officials said.

"Until that iron triangle is broken, there will be turmoil in the region," said one intelligence official. "There is too much history, too much money and too much blood for them to stop now, and they view losing the RUF as the beginning of the end."

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