Fighting Devastates Liberian Capital, Cholera Breaks Out

MONROVIA, Liberia, July 21, 2003 (ENS) - In Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, mortars and shells have been pounding the city for days, and the U.S. Embassy is caught in the cross-fire between the troops of embattled Liberian President Charles Taylor and the rebel forces of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. Cholera has broken out due to lack of clean water and sanitation facilities for thousands of displaced persons and refugees, but only one hospital is still functioning in the city.

Even before the current fighting, Monrovia had no power, running water or functioning sewage system, erratic garbage collection and a precarious health structure. Now, the situation is chaotic, warns the International Committee of the Red Cross. displaced

Frightened people flee Monrovia while rain pours down. (Photo courtesy ICRC)
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) at United Nations Headquarters in New York, all UN compounds in Monrovia are housing displaced persons, including the OCHA compound in Monrovia, where some 800 people have sought safety.

More than 100,000 people are now sheltering in some 80 places, mainly schools and churches, while several thousand remain at the Samuel K. Doe stadium.

On the weekend, thousands of people crammed the streets of a neighborhood housing diplomatic compounds seeking shelter behind their gates. The U.S. diplomatic residential compound at Greystone is already crammed with over 10,000 displaced persons from two recent rounds of fighting.

Faced with the escalating violence in Monrovia, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved the request of the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia John Blaney to augment the existing Marine security guards at the U.S. Embassy.

The Defense Department announced the dispatch of 41 additional military security personnel on Sunday and the anti-terrorism team arrived today. Team members evacuated the first group of Americans out of the country to Sierra Leone, although a full scale evacuation has not yet been authorized.

The U.S. Embassy compound in Monrovia came under fire Sunday as shooting between government troops and rebel forces grew more intense. Mortar rounds and small arms fire posed the greatest threat to those in or around the compound, and the shelling continues today.

Blaney

U.S. Ambassador to Liberia John Blaney, a 27 year veteran of the U.S. diplomatic service, arrived in Monrovia in September 2002. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)
Press reports indicate that a three ship U.S. amphibious task force led by the USS Iwo Jima has moved from its station off the Horn of Africa into the Mediterranean Sea. There are some 2,000 Marines assigned to the task force who could assist should an evacuation be required.

President George W. Bush said today that U.S. officials are monitoring the situation in Monrovia closely.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports an outbreak of cholera as internally displaced persons and refugees in Monrovia are living in overcrowded shelters with poor water supply and sanitation.

With 350 new cases reported during the period June 30 to July 6, the total of cholera cases in Monrovia is now 1,630, including 15 deaths, according to WHO. The security situation still makes it difficult to obtain exact numbers of cases and deaths, the global health organization says.

WHO, with UNICEF, is working with the Ministry of Health to finalize plans to extend the mass chlorination activities to communities in Monrovia and its surrounding areas. In addition, WHO is distributing health education materials on cholera prevention and control to health facilities and communities.

Providing humanitarian assistance is increasingly difficult under the circumstances, OCHA officials say. Food and water are running low at overcrowded displaced centers, including UN compounds.

children

Displaced children separated from their families. Red Croos workers are registering unaccompanied children in more than 80 places of refuge in the capital and in camps for displaced people in the surrounding area. (Photo courtesy ICRC)
City residents, including some staff of the UN and nongovernmental aid agencies, are sheltering indoors. "There is fear of looting, armed robbery, harassment and hijacking of cars by militias in the city and a number of aid agencies have ceased movements," OCHA said today.

Over the weekend, United Nations international staff assessing security conditions in order to secure the return of staff to Liberia were evacuated to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Liberian National Red Cross (LNRC) officials have promised to continue assisting the displaced and carrying out their humanitarian activities although the violence has destroyed their facilities, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent.

"Our headquarters is in ruins with our computers and other materials carted away," said LNRC Secretary-General Daniel Clarke, who mourned the destruction of the Red Cross medical laboratory, which, he says, was one of the best in the country.

The John F. Kennedy hospital is the only major medical facility still functioning. A team of nine expatriates - two surgeons, two anaesthetists, four nurses and a medical coordinator from the International Committee of the Red Cross - is supported by local staff and over 250 Liberian Red Cross volunteers. They currently have over 200 patients in their care.

Liberia, the oldest independent republic in Africa, lies on the West African coast and has a population of three million people with 16 recognized ethnic groups. President Taylor has stated publicly that he would not exit the country until a peacekeeping force - led by the United States - is in place.