UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
COTE D IVOIRE-LIBERIA: Child-soldier ring investigated amid warnings of growing West African mercenary activity
MONROVIA, 13 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Authorities are investigating a Liberian suspected of recruiting child-soldiers to fight in Cote d'Ivoire amid warnings that more and more young ex-combatants are resorting to work as hired guns in West African trouble spots.
In a report issued Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said poverty and hopelessness were sending a growing number of young veterans of West Africa's diverse conflicts to work as mercenaries in hotspots across the region.
The report, based on interviews with ex-combatants from more than a decade of West African wars, described the mercenaries as "roving warriors", or an "insurgent diaspora", who will continue to fuel regional conflict unless the issue of providing an alternative livelihood is addressed.
Highlighting the relevance of the warning, Liberian security sources said police and UN peacekeepers arrested Adama Keita a week ago on suspicion he was recruiting child-soldiers to fight across the border in Cote d'Ivoire.
He was picked up in eastern Zwedru, close to the Ivorian border, but security sources would not disclose whether he had been charged.
"Both the government and UN security networks have been suspicious of this gentleman's activities around the borders with Ivory Coast and we are questioning him about his involvement in the recruitment of ex-combatants in that region to fight in Ivory Coast", one top Liberian intelligence officer told IRIN
Adama is said to be a member of the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, a former rebel faction during the civil war said by diplomats and international groups to have been backed by the present Ivorian government.
UN Humanitarian Coordinator to Liberia, Abou Moussa, would not confirm or deny the arrest but said: "We will not tolerate that people come into Liberia and start recruitment."
The HRW report quoted humanitarian workers in Liberia as saying scores, if not hundreds, of children had been recruited there to fight in Cote d'Ivoire since November 2004, when two years of on-off tension re-erupted into open conflict.
Of the around 60 ex-combatants interviewed in the HRW report, most were recruited as children and have continued fighting for one insurgency or another as adults.
More and more children are being drawn into this cycle of warfare today, notably to Guinea to fight for or against the government of President Lansana Conte, and to Cote d'Ivoire, where rebels occupying the north of the country are locked in conflict with President Laurent Gbagbo, who controls the south.
"I have interviewed children being recruited by Ivorians to fight for the pro-Gbabgo militia - it's another example of a government supporting a system of destabilisation," Corinne Dufka, one of the authors of the report told IRIN.
The report said young fighters from across the region had been recruited to do battle for both sides of the Ivorian conflict, which grew from a failed coup in September 2002.
According to Dufka, mercenaries said they had contacts as high up in the Ivorian army as Colonel, "so clearly there is official involvement of the armed forces of Cote d'Ivoire," she said.
The Ivorian government has repeatedly denied any such activity, saying that the national armed forces are strong enough to tackle the rebels on their own without resorting to child soldiers.
Western Cote d'Ivoire bordering Liberia remains the most volatile part of the country. In March 2005 pro-Gbagbo militias launched an armed attack there on rebel positions that was halted by UN peacekeepers.
Refugee camps used as recruitment centres
Camps housing the hundreds of refugees in the region are also recruiting grounds for young foot soldiers.
As recently as November 2004, HRW received reports that Liberian children were being recruited from UN refugee agency (UNHCR) camps in western Cote d'Ivoire.
"It is an issue of great concern. We have been trying to get them [the refugees] to tell us if such things are currently taking place so that we can help them," said Fatoumata Sinkoun Kaba, regional public information officer for UNHCR.
The UN Secretary-General in a February 2005 report on children and armed conflict claimed that approximately 20 child soldiers were recruited from the Nicla camp for Liberian refugees close to the town of Guiglo in western Cote d'Ivoire.
However this report was based on activities noted much earlier, said UNHCR.
"It is true that Nicla camp was militarised, particularly in 2003 when armed elements roamed the camp and daily gunshots and knife brawls were reported," said Kaba. She said that today the situation was incomparable.
"At the moment we have nothing substantive that we can take up with the government," she said.
But Dufka said that the recruitment of former combatants was an ongoing problem in the Cote d'Ivoire/Liberian border region. With porous borders and dense forest, guns and instability move easily.
"In West Africa we have repeatedly seen how a relatively small number of combatants can create havoc and commit human rights abuses in a neighbouring country," she said.
Two thirds of the Liberians interviewed for the HRW report had been approached since April 2004 to fight for one faction or another in a fighting "mission" abroad.
According to Dufka, the motivations for a fighter to sign up are practical and economic rather than linked to ideology or belief.
"Most would rather not go to war but they had few skills and the recruiters preyed on this," she said.
"What really came out in this report was the complete despair about their lives," said Dufka. "The money they earned was used for legitimate concerns - hospital bills, support for family members, micro-credit loans to a brother, perhaps."
Indeed, recruiters may not always offer a salary as such, with fighters instead encouraged to pay themselves by looting -the major attraction of the job, said HRW.
"When things got tense in Danane (in western Cote d'Ivoire) we left in a convoy of about 75 . We left with all the things we'd been able to take," one Liberian former fighter who fought in Cote d'Ivoire in 2002-2003 told HRW.
"It's a war - we needed something to bring back to benefit our people and besides, they hadn't been paying us our salaries and what we'd been promised. It was a big convoy - we were bringing a lot of loot, we were bringing cars, house materials, generators, computers, trucks - all from Danane," he said.
If these regional warriors are to be dissuaded from taking up arms and carrying on the fight somewhere else, then economic and personal development are the key, according to HRW.
A 35-year-old Sierra Leonean combatant who had fought in his own country then later in Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire, told HRW that there would be more fighting if he did not share some of the benefits of peace.
"I know why we fought the war in Sierra Leone but we were betrayed. If this government doesn't try harder to take care of us, if by the next election we are no better off than we are now, war will once again come to this country - and it will be worse than this past war," he said.
Sierra Leone's brutal 10-year civil war was ended by intervention from British and UN forces and sealed with elections in 2002.
"We suffered to defend this country, but what were we really fighting for?" added the ex-combatant.
"My children eat once a day and at times go to bed hungry. I see the chiefs, the big men, the ministers - they send their children to study abroad, whilst we live to suffer. They even use their money to buy justice in the courts. Let them heed this warning. We are talking about this now - we want another revolution," he told HRW in July 2004.
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