- - Tuesday, September 4, 2012

MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberia is embarking on its first large-scale army operation since the end of its civil war almost a decade ago, with troops being deployed to the border with Ivory Coast in a mission to root out militants that officials also hope will revamp the military’s image at home.

Liberians are wary of any buildup of their armed forces because the West African country was riven by civil conflict from 1989 to 2003. Under President Charles Taylor, paramilitary troops dubbed the “Demon Forces” launched a campaign of killing and torture across the country.

A U.N.-backed tribunal at The Hague convicted Taylor this year of war crimes for his involvement in clashes in neighboring Sierra Leone.

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The U.S. stepped in to help build a new Liberian army after Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, came to power in 2006, but unease about the fighters remains.

“People feel that most of the guys who did cause harm and atrocity in the war times are the same guys within this military,” said Cpl. George S. Greene, one of the first of Liberia’s newly trained army recruits. “All I can do now is to ensure them that this military is a new kind of military. We’ll try to [change] their minds.”

Unrest in Ivory Coast has forced the Liberian government to take military action.

A joint force made up of the army, police and immigration officials has been deployed for Operation Restore Hope, a mission to take control of dense forests that observers say are used by rebel Ivorian fighters as a base to launch attacks on the Ivorian army and civilians seen as loyal to Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.

Violence erupted in Ivory Coast after Mr. Ouattara was elected president in November 2010. The election results were backed by the United Nations and the African Union but disputed by Mr. Ouattara’s predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to cede power. That threw the country into civil war before Mr. Gbagbo was captured by U.N. forces in April 2011.

Mr. Gbagbo faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but his supporters continue to pose a violent challenge to the Ivorian government and have recruited Liberian mercenaries to their cause.

“The border area is particularly volatile because of the large number of pro-Gbagbo fighters that crossed into Liberia, the prevalence of small arms, the combination of land and political conflict, and the porous nature of the border itself,” said Matt Wells, of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division.

According to a Human Rights Watch report in June, the rebel militias have killed at least 40 Ivorian civilians from ethnic groups that largely support Mr. Ouattara during cross-border attacks since July 2011.

The report criticized Liberian authorities for failing “to investigate and prosecute dozens of Liberian and Ivorian nationals who crossed into Liberia after committing war crimes” during the Ivory Coast’s postelection crisis.

After the report was published, seven U.N. peacekeepers from Niger, 10 civilians and one Ivorian soldier were killed in an attack that the Ivorian government blamed on militias and mercenaries crossing the border from Liberia.

Also, at least 12 Ivorian soldiers and one civilian were killed in August attacks targeting the Ivory Coast’s military in the capital, Abidjan.

In response to the Human Rights Watch report, Liberia closed its 420-mile border with Ivory Coast and sent troops to the border regions.

Analysts say Operation Restore Hope is a major test for Liberia.

The sight of men with AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders has, for many Liberians, brought back memories of conflict. Liberia’s security still relies heavily on the presence of nearly 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers, and the idea of Liberians fighting again is a terrifying thought for many.

“It really is the first major test for the Liberian military following the significant investment by the U.S. and others,” said Human Rights Watch’s Mr. Wells. “The [Liberian soldiers] need to put these years of training into practice to ensure the protection of civilians in the border area and to stop fighters who have sought refuge there from further destabilizing the subregion.”

Soldiers say they are determined to “kick the enemy” out of Liberia.

“We are here to make sure they do not operate on our soil,” said Capt. Cephas Gboe, commander of the operation, speaking from a makeshift base at a school close to the Ivory Coast border.

Inside, classrooms have been turned into bedrooms, and desks and chairs are piled high in the playground. Stretchers and medical kits are lined up in the medic room, formerly the school canteen, and the army is in full combat mode.

Operation Restore Hope has achieved some success. Liberian forces have arrested four people in connection with the attack that killed the Nigerien peacekeepers, as well as six gunmen who raided border checkpoints in western Ivory Coast in late August.

Still, there have been reports of low morale, lack of finances and logistical problems within the Liberian forces at the border, and some concern over whether the army is up to the task.

Soldiers say they are trying to live up to their mission.

“We are doing the best with the little we have,” said one soldier, who asked that his name be withheld because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

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