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Army continues giving guns to Liberian refugees

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La carte de la Côte d'Ivoire (IRIN )

The Cote d'Ivoire army is continuing to recruit young Liberians from Guiglo refugee camp in the west of the country to fight against Ivorian rebel forces in the area, according to UN officials and Liberian residents in the camp and the commander of French peacekeeping forces in the area.

They said that young men with AK-47 automatic rifles left the neat settlement of palm thatched mud-huts almost every day to go out and and fight in the surrounding forest. In many cases these fighters were not paid, so they were simply allowed to loot whatever they could find in the areas where they were sent to.

The sources said several hundred young men and some children among Guiglo's 9,000 inhabitants had been recruited in this way and up to 200 had died in combat. The Ivorian army was continuing to use their services despite a new ceasefire between the government and rebels, which took effect on 4 May, they stressed.

Some of the sources said many of the fighters from Guiglo had also been sent across the nearby border to join rebels fighting President Charles Taylor in Liberia.

UNHCR personnel said part of the problem was a lack of alternatives for young men in the camp, where there were few other opportunities for them to earn money or gain prestige. The schools in the camp have only recently been reactivated and they rely on unpaid volunteer teachers working with with a minimum of books and other teaching materials. Only a fraction of the children in the camp are enrolled, although the number attending classes has recently risen from 400 to 1,000.

UNHCR officials said that while many young men were tempted to take up arms an increasing number of young women in the camp were turning to prostitution.

No guns were to be seen as Ruud Lubbers, the head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, toured Guiglo camp last Sunday. Watching from the sidelines, Lt-Col Noel Yedess, the commander of the Cote d'Ivoire's gendarmerie in the region, said he knew nothing about the recruitment of Liberian refugees in the camp, even though there is a police post at the main gate.

But Jette Isaksen, a Danish aid worker seconded to the UNHCR administration of the camp for the past two months, said that every day she saw refugees walking round with guns and there was an atmosphere of deep fear in the settlement.

"They live here. They go in the morning and come home in the evening," she said, adding that the sound of shooting was constant. "It is every day, night and day."

Another UNHCR official nodded at a battered pick-up trip with a dozen young men in the back bouncing out of the camp on Sunday. "Those will be Limas," he said.

Thomas Giolore, one Liberian in Guiglo who has turned his back on the violence to set up a small furniture building business with eight other refugees, said that by his estimation 190 to 200 armed Liberians from the camp had been killed in fighting since they became sucked into Cote d'Ivoire's eight-month old civil war.

Giolore, 37, said he saw men with guns walking round the refugee camp all the time, but added: "I deal with constructive ideas, not destruction."

The armed Liberians who have been used by both the government and rebel forces in western Cote d'Ivoire, are known locally as "Limas." The nickname comes from the radio call sign for the letter "L" and stands for Liberian.

They are notorious for raping, pillaging and killing innocent civilians. And since these rag-tag militiamen are not always paid for their work, their looting habits come as no surprise to anyone. But their activities have turned the local Ivorian population against all Liberians in the region.

Commander Thomas Pironneau, the head of French peacekeeping forces stationed in the Guiglo area, said a French patrol killed three "Limas" in a confrontation only 10 km from the town last Thursday after they opened fire on his men.
Pironneau said there were "over a thousand" and possibly several thousand armed Liberians still operating in western Liberia, where both the government and rebels have recently made efforts to bring these poorly disciplined auxilliaries under control.

Asked whether any of these "Limas" had been recruited by government forces from Guiglo refugee camp, he smiled broadly and replied: "Don't say that too loudly."

There are an estimated 30,000 Liberian refugees living in western Cote d'Ivoire, most of whom are from the Krahn tribe of eastern Liberia. Most are staying with friends and relatives from the same tribe on the Ivorian side of the border.

Panos Moumtzis, acting head of UNHCR in Cote d'Ivoire, said several hundred Liberians in Guiglo had been recruited to fight, including boys as young as eight. Isaksen said she knew of 17 child combatants in the camp under the age of 18.

Lubbers himself acknowledged that refugees were still being given guns and made to fight, but said the only solution was to halt the conflicts which they had been sucked into. "We cannot afford to see the militarisation of refugee camps," he said after touring Guiglo. "It would just be going in the wrong direction."

Many refugees were reluctant to talk about the recruitment of "Limas" and some assertive young men flatly denied that any such activity took place there.

However, all admited that shooting was frequently heard in the bush nearby, even though Guiglo is over 40 km from the frontline with the rebel-controlled north.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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