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LIBERIA: UN returns to kick-start relief as Taylor departs

ABIDJAN, 11 August 2003 (IRIN) - The United Nations welcomed the resignation of Liberian President Charles Taylor and his departure into exile on Monday, saying it marked the beginning of the end of a long nightmare" for the Liberian people."

Carolyn McAskie, Deputy UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the UN would return in force to the country this week and should be able to restart food distribution to an estimated 450,000 displaced people in Monrovia "within days."

In New York, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said Taylor's departure marked "the beginning of the end of the long nightmare of the Liberian people," who have known little but civil war and misery for the past 14 years.

He said Annan "Strongly urges all parties in Liberia to observe the ceasefire and allow humanitarian assistance to reach the population in all parts of the country."

McAskie said that getting the UN agencies back into Liberia to supply much-needed food, drinking water, medical supplies, shelter and sanitation in that country was the top priority.

"The UN is very conscious that it is not in Liberia but this is going to change very dramatically in the next 24 hours," she told IRIN in Abidjan in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire on her way into Liberia.

McAskie said in an interview she hoped to "Get everyone in over the next couple of days." But she added that it would take a few days more to get relief operations fully up and running."

McAskie said: "If we can get into Monrovia, there is an awful lot that we can do immediately. And there should be no obstacles for example to start the food distributions within days. I would hope that this could happen this week," she added.

Since the evacuation of UN international staff from Monrovia, on 10 June, three attempts have been made by the UN family to go back to Monrovia, but with little success because of poor security in the city. As Taylor flew out, the UN country team flew back in to make a fourth attempt on Monday.

McAskie said:"Today another team has returned to Liberia to assess the logistics capability for delivery out of Robertsfield (airport), but also to venture into Monrovia as well."

McAskie, a former Canadian diplomat, said she herself was planning to visit Monrovia on Tuesday and the UN Assistant Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ross Mountain, would also arrive later this week from Geneva to lead the UN relief efforts in Liberia.

McAskie stressed that it had taken the UN some time to get back into Liberia because of security concerns. She said: "Over the last few years the UN has taken the whole issue of security very seriously and have come to the conclusion that we do not have an option other than to protect the safety of UN personnel."

"On the one hand, if we take liberties to take risks we are criticised for putting the lives of our people in danger, but if we decide not to take those risks we are criticised for running away from the crisis - so it is a very delicate and difficult balance."

McAskie said the UN was in a very difficult position compared to other organisations working in Liberia, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres, because it had become a target of Taylor's government as a result of sanctions imposed against it.

"They [the UN] were specifically targeted by the regime because they were assumed to be associated with the UN sanctions," she said.

McAskie pointed out that the sanctions were actually imposed by UN member governments through the Security Council, whereas UN relief work was performed by UN agencies that were politically neutral.

But she added: "The government chose to mount a very negative campaign against the UN personnel in association with the sanctions - so there was a much higher security risk toward the UN international personnel than to other aid organisations."

McAskie said the UN's immediate priorities were to provide food and medical care to the civilian population of Liberia. Thousands have been killed and wounded in recent fighting and McAskie noted that women had suffered heavily from sexual abuse.

"There are outbreaks of cholera and we have to ensure that people have proper sanitation that we can put in programmes for vaccination campaigns across the country," she added.

However, McAskie said the extension of humanitarian activities to the interior of Liberia - where two thirds of the country's three million population lives, would depend on the security situation there. At present, more than 80 percent of Liberia is occupied by two rebel movements and fighting is still reported to be going on in some areas, even though an informal truce has held for the past week in Monrovia.

"The ideal situation would be that all the parties accept the ceasefire and let the political process take its course and this would allow the international community to go into Liberia and start reaching people in the countryside," she said.

The UN has not had access to people in eastern Liberia for three to four months, she said, while some parts of Lofa county in the northwest have not been accessible for several years.

The United Nations has backed the establishment of war crimes tribunal for Rwanda and Sierra Leone, whose Special Court has indicted Taylor for his role in fuelling Sierra Leone's 1991 to 2001 civil war. But McAskie said it was still too early to consider setting up a similar court for Liberia, where about 250,000 people are estimated to have died in a series of conflicts since 1989.

She said this was an issue which Jacques Klein, the recently appointed Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Liberia, was looking into.

"This is one of issues Jacques Klein is considering, but it is still too early to make any predictions as to what form it would take," McAskie said. "Certainly he has made the rule of law one of his top priorities and he is consulting with the office of the high commissioner for human rights very closely."

Themes: (IRIN) Conflict

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