U.N. troops arrest dozens in Liberia

Monday, November 1, 2004

The Associated Press

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Armed U.N. troops arrested dozens of men Sunday in a sometimes bloody conclusion to a countrywide disarmament program, days after a fresh burst of violence in the war-battered West African nation.

In one neighborhood, about 80 men and boys lay on the ground surrounded by U.N. Ghanaian and Nigerian peacekeepers after one of several U.N. raids. Their ragged clothes were bloodstained and their wounds bleeding from what they said was the violence of their arrests.

U.N. forces said the men had been firing weapons and intimidating residents. Gunfire blasted across the area, at least some of them warning shots from U.N. peacekeepers sweeping sites for arms.

Bangladeshi U.N. troops searched vehicles for weapons at checkpoints across the capital, Monrovia, while Nigerian U.N. forces patrolled in vehicles with mounted machine guns.

Sunday stood as the deadline for civilians to surrender weapons under a U.N.-supported disarmament program, launched in December 2003 after the end of the latest of nearly 1-1/2 decades of civil wars here.

The project collected guns from 90,000 ex-combatants, who gave up their weapons for $300 and access to U.N.-backed rehabilitation programs, according to U.N. figures.

Authorities promised prosecution for those found with weapons after Sunday.

"The deadline is still today. What we have planned to do after today is still in force," a U.N. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said by telephone from U.N. headquarters.

Monrovia is still on edge after a surprise outbreak of Muslim-Christian fighting Friday, marking some of the worst violence since last year's peace.

The confirmed death toll in Friday's fighting remained at five, with five churches and an undetermined number of mosques burned. The U.N. mission on Sunday denied police accounts that three of the victims died when they were run over by a U.N. armored personnel carrier.

It was unclear what sparked the mayhem. Religious violence is rare in Liberia, a nation founded in the 1800s by freed American slaves where about 40 percent of the country's 3.3 million people are Christians and 20 percent are Muslims.

A few churchgoers ventured out for religious services Sunday morning under a newly eased curfew that allows Monrovia's citizens to leave their homes from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Elsewhere, Muslims surrounded a burned mosque, guarding it against further attack.

Peacekeepers had placed a 24-hour curfew on the city after Friday's violence.

Residents reported ex-fighters roaming the streets with rifles and machetes in Friday's attacks, heightening suspicions that many weapons are still being held.

Liberia is struggling to recover from fighting that began in 1989 and claimed at least 150,000 lives. A three-year war ended last year when rebels shelled Monrovia, forcing President Charles Taylor into exile in Nigeria, and paved the way for an interim government with top rebel officials in ministerial posts.

A 15,000-strong U.N. peace force is now stationed in the country, which is expected to hold elections in October 2005.

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