Liberian fighters want reward for service
MONROVIA, Liberia -- "Jimmyboy" fought for warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor for 14 years, first as a teenage rebel, and later in his elite Anti-Terrorist Unit. Now the 28-year-old wants to lay down his automatic rifle, but not before he receives -- or takes -- a "reward of service."
Since Taylor pledged last month to resign on condition peacekeepers are deployed, the feared and loathed militias that have been key to his survival through a decade of turmoil have begun to unravel, combatants and residents say. This raises the prospect of a gaping power vacuum -- and the possibility of renewed bloodshed.
Several current and former fighters interviewed by The Associated Press warned of a violent looting spree in the West African nation unless they receive retirement payoffs before the leader they affectionately call "Pappy" departs.
"Taylor is leaving us, and I have to think about my future," Jimmyboy said, his black bulletproof vest loaded with ammunition. "There will be trouble. We want a reward of service and we hope Pappy will give it to us.
"But if he doesn't, we will have to take it ourselves," added Jimmyboy, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his military nickname.
Threats like these from fighters who see no future without Taylor underline the urgency of appeals by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, European leaders and Liberians themselves for international peacekeepers to prevent a descent into anarchy.
"Everybody is concerned about what will happen between now and when the first peacekeepers arrive on the ground," said David Parker, British aid coordinator for the European Union in Monrovia. "The potential for meltdown in the capital still exists."
Liberia's main rebel group on Friday threatened a "firefight" with any peacekeepers sent before Taylor resigns, a deployment they would regard as propping up his regime.
Among challenges facing an intervention force are Taylor's brutal, undisciplined private armies -- including the uniformed paramilitary Anti-Terrorist Unit, the police Special Operations Division, and numerous civilian militia units in T-shirts and bandanas.
Taylor created these groups to reinforce his grip on power in part because he was suspicious of the army, which includes former faction members who fought against him during the country's 1989-96 civil war.
Untrained, undisciplined and often drunk or high, they answer directly to the president, and are virtually leaderless without him, observers say.
Members earn as little as 500 Liberian "unity dollars" -- or $7 -- a month, and in the case of the many civilian militia fighters, nothing at all. Their guns are their main source of income -- allowing them to extort and loot from ordinary civilians in what is widely known as "Operation Pay Yourself."
Fearful of losing their livelihood, hundreds of war veterans protested Friday outside the U.S. and European missions in Monrovia, demanding international assistance.
Jimmyboy believes he is owed compensation from Liberia's government or international bodies for being forced to "do uncivilized things" as a teenage guerrilla during the last war, in which as many as 100,000 people were killed in this nation of 3 million, by some estimates.
The rock-hard loyalty of Taylor's fighters was shaken early this year by the killings of former Sierra Leone rebel leaders Johnny Paul Koroma and Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie, observers say. Once Taylor's cherished allies during Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war, the two were slain by Liberian troops under still-unexplained circumstances -- leaving Taylor's fighters increasingly distrustful of each other.
Taylor's civilian support has also whittled away. A ruling party rally Saturday drew just 1,000 die-hard supporters -- a fraction of previous turnouts. Referring to the leader by his middle name, they chanted: "We like Ghankay, he can stay."
No matter how many peacekeepers are eventually deployed, some Liberian fighters warn there can be no lasting peace unless a coordinated effort is made to integrate them into a unified military or back into civilian life.
"Bulletproof," an unpaid militia fighter in a ragged Chicago Blackhawks T-shirt and flipflop sandals lounging at a checkpoint in Liberia's war-battered capital, said he will demand the same money as the U.S. Marines he expects to see patrolling the streets.
"This is Liberia," he said. "I am security man here. They should share with me."