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Peace Talks, Ceasefire, Humanitarian Aid Crucial for Liberia, CWS Says

April 16, 2003, NEW YORK CITY - Liberian church leaders are pleading for urgent world attention to the worsening military and humanitarian crisis in their country as renewed intensive fighting in Liberia’s 13-year-old civil war displaces tens of thousands of civilians every week.

"The world must not watch the death of the rest of us," said the Rev. Kortu K. Brown, among advocates for the immediate scheduling of negotiations for a ceasefire and an end to all hostilities, then a political process leading to lasting peace.

"The crisis right now is very serious and is challenging our limits," said the Rev. Brown, who directs Concerned Christian Community, a Liberian faith-based humanitarian service organization. "We need … immediate food aid - rice, salt, oil, etc. to avert any starvation that may result from thousands of people running from fighting."

Agreed Mr. Benjamin Dorme Lartey, General Secretary of the Liberian Council of Churches and a lay leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, "The situation is deplorable and pathetic, and there is urgent need to respond to the people, particularly the women and children, and the elderly."

CHURCH WORLD SERVICE SENDS AID, SUPPORTS PEACE EFFORTS

The global humanitarian agency Church World Service is responding both with advocacy for peace and with material aid. CWS is calling for:

- Advancing the date of peace talks originally scheduled for April 10 in Bamako, Mali, but then postponed, and for including the full participation of all parties.

- Greater engagement of the U.S. government, and for it to take a direct role of intervention in the Liberian crisis and support for international participation in the elections.

- Supporting humanitarian appeals to set up new internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in other locations in Liberia.

These priorities emerged from a CWS delegation visit to Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and The Gambia in July 2002, and from a West African church leaders' return visit in March 2003.

CWS also is airlifting 1,500 blankets, 1,000 health kits and 4,296 cans of processed beef to Liberia, to arrive April 17 for prompt distribution. (Five CWS member denominations paid material, shipping and inland transportation costs: the American Baptist Churches in the USA, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ.)

The goods will help Concerned Christian Community meet the immediate needs of 2,500 new arrivals at the Perry Town Camp, which gives priority to pregnant women, nursing mothers, the ill and the elderly. They will be provided with temporary shelter in 10 transit facilities and will be provided with food, blankets, cooking utensils and counseling services for a three-month period.

Church World Service anticipates making a second airlift in late April or early May, along with a further contribution for shelter costs, said Donna J. Derr, CWS Associate Director for Emergency Response.

CWS is seeking to raise a total of $150,000 to support the airlifts and three more projects, including a joint Liberian Council of Churches/United Methodist Church nutritional, health care and educational project for 3,000 displaced families in Liberia’s Bong region.

The funds also will support two special outreach programs - Concerned Christian Community’s program assisting 750 women refugees and returnees who have been victims of rape and other abuse, and a YMCA leadership training program for 1,600 displaced children and youth, who are the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation and military recruitment.

Contributions may be directed to: Church World Service, Attn. Assistance for Liberia IDPs and Refugees, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515. Phone pledges/credit card donations: 1-800-297-1516. On-line contributions: www.churchworldservice.org

LIBERIAN CHURCHES ACTIVE IN PEACE EFFORTS

The Liberian faith community is internationally recognized for its work for peace. The Interreligious Council of Liberia (IRCL), formed in 1990 and comprising the Liberian Council of Churches and the National Muslim Council of Liberia, has met with both Charles Taylor and rebels calling themselves the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy), and was able to facilitate a meeting in February 2003 between the LURD and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The first week in April 2003, 18 political parties in Liberia met with the IRCL and signed a joint resolution to call on the Government of Liberia and LURD to meet and broker a ceasefire and an end to all hostilities. The ruling National Patriotic Party also attended the meeting. The IRCL is headed by Archbishop Michael K. Francis of the Roman Catholic Church, who is the immediate past president of the Liberian Council of Churches.

The IRCL has the support of ECOWAS and the International Contact Group on Liberia and has been asked to served as a facilitator of the proposed "Bamako" peace conference, reports Mr. Lartey, among IRCL’s leaders. These groups were scheduled to meet with Liberian government officials on Tuesday (April 15) in Monrovia to discuss the modalities for peace talks - now foreseen for either Accra, Ghana, or Dakar, Senegal.

The Liberian Council of Churches "is gravely concerned at the escalation of the fighting, and the formation of new fighting groups, which will only bring more hardship to the already suffering people of Liberia, and strongly condemns these actions," LCC leadership said in an April 9 press statement.

The Council "is concerned about the current delays in the convening of Peace Talks under the auspices of ECOWAS and the International Contact Group on Liberia, and requests that a meeting be convened without further delays. The Council supports the participation of all stakeholders at the Peace Talks, but suggests that such a meeting be carried out in two phases at the same venue, first with Government and LURD to negotiate a ceasefire; and secondly with all Stakeholders to strategize a way forward in the political process."

Liberian Christian and Muslim women also have organized to work and speak for peace. On April 11, about 1,000 women assembled in front of the Monrovia municipal office to demand an immediate halt to hostilities between the Liberian government and rebels, IRIN News reported.

In a statement to the government, LURD and MODEL, the women demanded an immediate and unconditional ceasefire and appealed to the international community to monitor it. They also called for dialogue between the warring parties for the restoration of peace in Liberia.

FIGHTING NATIONWIDE DISPLACES THOUSANDS

Civil war broke out in Liberia in December 1989 and has never really let go. The war officially ended with the 1997 elections and inauguration of President Charles Taylor. But in 1999, fighting broke out again, this time between government forces and LURD. Liberia’s instability has displaced hundreds of thousands within the country and into neighboring countries.

Since mid-March 2003, a series of attacks on displaced persons camps near Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, has driven thousands into the city to seek refuge.

At Jartondo Town Displaced Camp six miles outside Monrovia and managed by the Lutheran World Federation/World Service Liberia Program, fighting broke out between government and rebel forces on April 9 during distribution of relief items, reported Bishop Sumoward E. Harris of the Lutheran Church in Liberia.

Visiting staff of the Trauma Healing, Reconciliation and Peace Building Department of the Lutheran Church in Liberia were forced to turn back, Bishop Harris said, and one staff member allegedly was dragged off his motorbike by militia fighters. He fled for his life on foot and most of the camp’s 28,000 residents have moved to Monrovia’s suburbs.

Concerned Christian Community confirmed on April 12 that a CCC staff member, Cecilia Doe, providing psychosocial services to war-affected women at the Jartondo Town camp, has been missing since the attack on the camp.

In late March, rebels allegedly killed 20 and abducted 2,000 persons from the Ricks Institute, a Baptist High School and Junior College near the capital.

On March 27, the Liberian government proposed the relocation of 250,000 displaced persons to new camps in Monrovia’s southeast suburbs, along Schefflin Highway, the road leading to the international airport, the Rev. Brown reported. "Monrovia is sitting on a time bomb!" Mr. Lartey said.

Clashes have been reported all across the country, and rebels continue to open new fronts in their war against the government. Moreover, "in the course of this week, we have heard of a new fighting group operating in southeastern Liberia called the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL)," wrote Bishop Harris on April 10. "We have been told that over 30,000 people have moved from the southeast to the port city of Buchanan, Grand Bassa County."

On April 12, Concerned Christian Community wrote that Sinoe County in southeastern Liberia, where MODEL is operating, has been totally evacuated by its more than a quarter million people. Hundreds of Sinoe residents arrive in Monrovia daily, while others are placed in displaced centers in Buchanan city. Gunmen have begun to loot the deserted towns of Sinoe, a fleeing citizen reported.

Bishop Harris added, "We received the report yesterday (April 9) from the United Nations agencies, the European Union and U.S. Diplomatic Missions near Monrovia that 11 of the 15 political subdivisions of Liberia are not accessible to relief agencies. I can further say that 12 of the 15 political subdivisions are no longer accessible to relief agencies due to the intensity of the war."

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