War crimes, flagrant abuses rampant in war-torn Liberia: HRW

By: Jacques l´Huillery
© Agence France Press (AFP)

ABIDJAN, Jan 14 (AFP)  - Liberia in 2002 witnessed war crimes and rights abuses by the government and to a lesser degree by rebels fighting President Charles Taylor, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released Tuesday.

"In the northwest of the country, government troops and pro- government militias were responsible for summary killing, torturing and abusing civilians, raping women and girls and abducting civilians for forced labour and combat," the New York-based HRW said in an annual report.

The international rights watchdog said government forces "systematically looted and burnt towns" and forcibly conscripted fighters "including children, who were sent to the battlefront in an arbitrary manner."

The report slammed Taylor, struggling to tackle a war by the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group in the country's north, of brutally repressing any hint of resistance to his rule.

"For eight months of 2002, a state of emergency in government- held areas led to a crackdown of perceived opponents of President Taylor's government."

It also hauled up the rebels for "serious abuses, although to a lesser extent than government forces."

The insurgents, who launched their campaign in July 2000, were guilty of summary killings, rape, forced conscription of children and adults and restricting "those who wanted to flee the country."

The conflict has "displaced tens of thousands" and "hundreds, if not thousands" of civilians have been killed, it said.

HRW accused Taylor of playing the ethnic card by accusing people from the Mandingo, Krahn and Gbandi groups of backing the rebels, leading to a crackdown on them.

It said Taylor, a former warlord who was a main player in a seven- year civil war that ended only in 1997, had last year consolidated his stranglehold on the country and functioned with impunity.

"Taylor continued to consolidate and centralize power," it said.

"State institutions that could provide an independent check on the Taylor administration such as the judiciary, the legislature and the human rights commission, were steadily silenced."

The report said 2002 was an annus horribilis for rights activists.

"It was a particularly bad year," it said, adding that "several human rights activists had left the country during the year and applied for political asylum."

Several independent voices, especially in the media, were muffled as Taylor's critics or opponent were detained without charge or tortured.

HRW also said that despite a United Nations embargo on Taylor for his perceived support to former Sierra Leonean rebels in exchange for the "blood diamonds" mined by them, Monrovia continued to import arms.

"Evidence strongly suggested that a plane that crashed outside Monrovia in February carried illegal military cargo" and was "one of three suspicious flights from Chad, using planes fraudulently registered in Moldova and filing false flight plans."

It said a UN expert panel estimated that Liberia had "illegally imported over 200 tons of military equipment."

The organisation lauded the UN Security Council for extending sanctions on Liberia for a second year to end the "arms-for- diamonds trade" through exports, an arms embargo and a ban on foreign travel by Taylor and more than 130 senior government officials.

It also hailed the Security Council for calling for an audit of Liberia's shipping and timber revenues, widely thought to be used by Taylor to acquire weapons.

But it deplored the role of the UN Peace Building Support Office in Liberia (UNOL) which "played no active role in addressing the growing repression and abuses."

HRW noted "US pressure on the Liberian government to address human rights abuses" but said Washington had "failed publicly to condemn" abuses by LURD rebels.

AFP-January 14, 2003

© Robert W. Kranz  09-02-2002