UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
LIBERIA: UN probes cross-border arms smuggling
MONROVIA, 21 Jul 2004 (IRIN) - UN peacekeepers are investigating reports of smuggling arms and the movement of combatants across Liberia's international borders, General Joseph Owonibi, the deputy force commander of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) disclosed on Wednesday.
He told reporters that residents in several border towns and villages had informed peacekeepers that former combatants were smuggling weapons, mainly AK-47 assault rifles, into neighbouring countries. There they were bartered for consumer goods such as motorbikes, he added.
Owonibi did not say which of Liberia's three neighbours were involved in the arms smuggling. There have recently been persistent reports of Liberian weaponry moving into Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire and of Liberian fighters made idle by last year's peace agreement drifting into Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire.
"We have reports of cross-borders arms smuggling and arms exchange for motorcycles," Owonibi said. This is not a media report, but our patrol teams and military observers got the reports from the local population on the ground," he added.
"We are investigating these reports," the UNMIL deputy commander said. "We are also aware that Liberian ex-combatants are crossing into neighbouring countries."
Although UNMIL has deployed 15,000 UN peacekeepers across Liberia to maintain security following the end of a 14-year civil war in August 2003, fighters of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) rebel groups still control many of the key frontier posts.
An IRIN correspondent who visited northwestern Liberia last week found LURD combatants to be in control of a key border crossing to Guinea near the town of Voinjama.
Another IRIN correspondent who visited southeastern Guinea in June was told by residents in Nzerekore, the main town in the region, that there were several hundred armed LURD fighters in the vicinity.
"It is not possible for our forces to seal off the entire borders of Liberia, but what we can do is exchange information with our sister missions in neighbouring countries and the local people by monitoring border points through air, ground and foot patrols," Owonibi said.
Diplomats believe that LURD was strongly backed by Guinea and that MODEL received heavy backing from Cote d'Ivoire during their war against former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who was forced to quit power and go into exile last year.
Owonibi said he was unable to confirm claims made by Liberia's Independent Human Rights Commission this week, that some 500 child soldiers had been secretly recruited in the Monrovia's eastern suburb of Paynesville and sent to a training base in Gueckedougou, just over the border in Guinea.
Commission Chairman Dempster Brown told IRIN on Wednesday that his organisation had overwhelming evidence that Liberian children had been secretly recruited as fighters to destabilise Guinea, where President Lansana Conte, is grappling with a declining economy, popular discontent at rising food prices and the overspill of conflict from Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire.
"Our report on this secret and forcible recruitment is intended to alert the transitional government to these rebellious activities. We have cogent and overwhelming evidence to prove our claims," said Brown.
Paynesville is known in Monrovia as a stronghold of former fighters loyal to ex-president Taylor.
An official close to Gyude Bryant, the Chairman of Liberia's transitional government, said Bryant was "taking the Commission's report very seriously".
He disclosed that a joint Liberian security and UNMIL investigation into the reported recruitment of child soldiers was under way.
"Guinea is our good neighbour. We have been fostering brotherly relations with that country since this government came to power in October and it would be an embarrassment if it is found out that Liberia is a breeding ground for dissident activities into Guinea and steps would be taken to immediately halt it," he told IRIN.
Relations between Liberia and Guinea became strained under Taylor. Each accused the other of trying to destabilise his government.
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