Liberians Worry Peacekeepers Will Loot Again

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When West African intervention troops first arrived in Liberia in 1990, residents of the shell-shocked capital gave them a rapturous welcome. Later, some peacekeepers were accused of perpetuating the havoc rather than preventing it.

Thirteen years later, regional peacekeepers are once again deploying to stop a conflict with President Charles Taylor (search) at its center. Residents still see the outsiders as their final hope — but worry once again the troops will only add to their suffering.

"Whenever peacekeeping troops come there is looting ... Some say they will take away our women," Monrovia businessman Mohammed Dauda, 31, said. "But we don't care. Whatever it takes to restore peace, we will accept."

On Monday, several hundred Nigerian troops are scheduled to arrive at Liberia's main airport, amid increasing pressure on Taylor, an indicted war-crimes suspect, to step aside. They are the first soldiers of a 3,250-strong force from six West African nations and led by Nigeria that leaders hope will quell recent violence in Monrovia.

The mission is being organized by the Economic Community of West African States (search), or ECOWAS, which oversaw the deployment of past West African missions.

That's part of the problem. Magnus Wolfe Murray, a Monrovia aid worker whose British charity group Merlin was a front-line witness to the years of mayhem wrought by peacekeepers, says foreign troops have been known for "turning looting into an industry."

"You send poor soldiers in to monitor a civil war, and they are going to see it as an opportunity for themselves," said Murray.

The intervention force consists of troops who fought variously alongside and against Taylor, who is blamed for sustaining the years of bloodshed after launching the country into warfare at the head of a small insurgency in 1989.

The fighting has left 100,000 dead and the nation in ruins.

The West African fighters were accused by rights groups of torturing suspected informers of Liberian factions and were blamed for more than 100 killings in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Many believed the intervention force turned a blind eye in 1990, when Liberia's then-president Samuel Doe (search) was kidnapped from the West African mission's Monrovia headquarters. Doe was later tortured and killed by fighters loyal to faction leader Prince Johnson.

Mohammed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the regional group, cites training of regional militaries by the United States and other developed nations as an example of how troops are trying to polish their image and "learn from past mistakes."

"We want peacekeepers, not warmongers. We try to turn them around, to be more humane, less trigger-happy" said Lt. Col. Connie Danso, a Ghanaian peacekeeping trainer and herself a veteran of missions in Lebanon, Rwanda and Eritrea.

Some soldiers now undergo courses in cultural sensitivity, politics and languages at training centers in three West African nations.

Despite their checkered history, the West Africans — led by regional powerhouse Nigeria — helped end Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war and gave Liberia a few years of relative peace in the mid-1990s.

But the challenges could be far greater this time. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have flooded Monrovia, and some 1,000 civilians are already dead in the nearly two-month siege on the city by rebels seeking to oust Taylor.

Electricity is nonexistent. Food and water are scarce. Cholera and other deadly diseases have spread.

European governments and Liberians themselves have called on the United States to lead the force to Liberia, which was founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves. So far, Washington has not made its intentions clear, though U.S. Marines are waiting in warships off the coast.

Members of an American contingent would be able to rein in their African counterparts, said Boye Nimely, a 30-year-old truck driver.

"I don't like Nigerians ... If they come alone, [human rights abuses] will happen again," Nimely said. "Except if they will be led by Americans, then eyes will be upon them."