Pro-government militias forcibly recruiting refugees in war-torn Liberia

© The Associated Press

BREWERVILLE, Liberia (AP) - Armed men believed to be pro-government militia fighters have repeatedly raided refugee camps in this West African country, forcing residents to join the fight against a nearly 4-year-old uprising in northern Liberia, witnesses and U.N. officials said Wednesday.

At least seven young men in their 20s were abducted from a camp at Brewerville, on the outskirts of the capital Monrovia, in the past week alone, said Mohammed Zackwe, a spokesman for the refugees there. Similar incidents have also been reported at other camps in the area, including ones housing Liberians displaced by the fighting in the North.

At sunset Saturday, men brandishing guns and knives drove into the Brewerville camp in a pickup truck, residents said. The men grabbed two refugees - twin brothers who escaped a decade-long war in neighboring Sierra Leone - and stripped and beat them, they said.

"They lifted them up and threw them into the pickup like bags of rice," said a teacher at the camp, who asked not to be named.

Their distraught parents have not seen them since.

"My children are not soldiers," said their father, Augustine Siafa. "They have no idea about rifles. They have never carried guns before."

The few who escaped said they were taken to a roundup point on the road north known as "Combat Camp," where they were given guns and told they would be fighting for warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor.

One victim said he tried to persuade his captors to let him go by showing them his school identification card.

"Instead, the men told me I had learned enough books, and they were taking me to learn the use of RPG," or rocket-propelled grenades, said the young Sierra Leonean, who was too afraid to give his name.

Terrified young men at the camp said they now avoid walking in the open, for fear they too will be captured.

"We are not fighters. If we had wanted to take up guns, we would not have run away from Sierra Leone to come to this country," said Zackwe, the refugee spokesman.

The U.N. refugee office in Monrovia said it has reported the matter to the government, but declined to provide details.

Sam Brown, head of the government commission for refugees, said he was traveling north Wednesday to look into the matter.

Taylor won 1997 elections after a devastating seven-year civil war, which he launched in 1989. Since those elections, rebels based in the north of the country have fought to topple him.

The government has struggled to put down the uprising and has accused neighboring Guinea of supporting the insurgents, who include some of Taylor's rivals from the civil war. Guinea denies any involvement.

AP-NY-01-15-03 1513EST

© Robert W. Kranz  January-2003