UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
LIBERIA: Soldiers refuse to quit camp needed for new army
MONROVIA, 4 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - More than 2,000 former Liberian soldiers are defying a government order to vacate a military camp outside the capital, Monrovia - a barracks authorities say is needed for training a new army after 14 years of war.
In early December, the transitional government led by Charles Gyude Bryant ordered the soldiers to quit Camp Schiefflin by the end of the year, as part of a programme to revamp the country's armed forces. But the soldiers have refused.
"I am not leaving this barracks to go anywhere," 70-year-old
Master Sergeant Yapkawolo Gbellee said, explaining that he spent 44 years in the Liberian army and has lived at Camp Schiefflin for a decade.
Gbellee is insisting on 22 months' salary arrears, pension rights and official decoration for his military service before he will leave the camp.
"I joined the army with honour and the government cannot create a situation for me to leave the army with disgrace."
The International Contact Group on Liberia (ICGL) - comprising western and African governments and organisations that helped broker the county's 2003 peace deal - has rejected the soldiers' stand and set a new evacuation deadline of 7 January.
Liberia's peace accord called for the restructuring of the armed forces, which fell into disarray after the start of the civil war in December 1989. But as part of the overhaul - with training provided by the United States - the government is to pay off existing soldiers.
The defiant soldiers at Camp Schiefflin - many of them officers who joined the army before the war broke out, others recruited during the conflict - are demanding proper retirement compensation and relocation allowances before vacating the barracks, located about 30 kilometres east of Monrovia.
Some are warning that the government could see "trouble" if it does not satisfy their demands.
"The government owes us salaries," First Sergeant Richard Brikrah told IRIN. "If they do not pay us but try to force us out of here, the government will surely run into trouble...We are soldiers and we know what to do."
The ICGL said on Monday the soldiers have been paid their retirement benefits, but the troops are holding out for relocation coverage, back pay and assurance of pensions.
In a communique the ICGL group said, "That camp is now required for the recruitment and training of a new Armed Forces of Liberia [AFL]....The ICGL will not accept the situation where former members of the AFL issue threats and continue to refuse instructions to evacuate Camp Schiefflin."
Liberian defence sources said the soldiers received US $540 to $2000 as demobilisation benefits last year.
The standoff at the barracks is holding up final steps that would open the way to training the new Liberian army.
In 2003 the US government pledged US $35 million to recruit and train the new military force, but it demanded that the Liberian government pay off its existing soldiers first.
Washington has contracted Dyncorp, a US-based company, to recruit and train a new Liberian army of 2,000 men and women. Liberia had originally planned a 4,000-strong army but a lack of funds forced a scale-back earlier this year.
Members of the current Armed Forces of Liberia can apply for positions in the new army, and would be eligible provided they have no record of human rights abuses and have not yet reached retirement age.
All Liberian men and women, including former combatants from the two main rebel groups, face the same eligibility restrictions.
During the civil war there were a number of failed attempts to overhaul the armed forces.
Under the Abuja peace accord, which led to a break in fighting in 1996 and general elections in 1997, the West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG was to retrain a new national army based on fair ethnic and geographical representation.
But Charles Taylor, who won the 1997 elections, sidelined the matter. A year later his government established a commission which recommended a 6,000-strong army but the proposal was never implemented.
Then in 1999, civil conflict erupted again and army reform plans were dropped. Taylor favoured his former rebel fighters, who formed militia groups that battled rebel insurgents until 2003 when Taylor fled into exile.
Lieutenant James Wiary, one of the soldiers standing firm at Camp Schiefflin, said the current government must get it right.
"We took training to defend ourselves from any actions against us and the government needs to act wise to settle our arrears instead of forceful eviction."
This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but May not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2006
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