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UN Peacekeepers Put Down Violent Protest by Liberian Ex-Soldiers

Peacekeepers with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia have broken up a protest by ex-soldiers after it turned violent. A U.N. official says the incident highlights the dangers that still persist in the war-shattered nation, despite an election process that has gone smoothly.

The several-hundred former members of Liberia's now defunct national army protested Tuesday in front of military barracks and the defense ministry in the capital, Monrovia.

Liberian journalist David Targbe was on the scene and describes what he saw.

"The protest started early this morning with the soldiers setting up roadblocks," said Mr. Targbe. "And they were dispersed by the prompt presence of U.N. peacekeepers."

The ex-members of the Liberian army, known as the AFL, began a peaceful protest Monday, but began throwing rocks at passing cars on the second day, which is when the peacekeepers moved in to break up the protest. Several protesters were taken into custody by U.N. civilian police.

Mr. Targbe said the affected areas remained empty after the protest was put down. U.N. military stayed on to ensure security.

"What is happening here now is we're seeing a heavy presence of U.N. peacekeepers," he added. "The offices here at the defense ministry have all been abandoned. All the officials have left for fear that the soldiers would have turned their anger on them."

The ex-soldiers involved in the protest were mostly recruited into the army in the early 1990s, at the beginning of Liberia's recently ended civil war. Though other groups of ex-combatants, including those from various rebel factions, have entered into a disarmament process, the AFL soldiers will be among the last ones to benefit from the program.

A spokesman for the U.N. mission in Liberia, Paul Risley, says the former soldiers fear they are being forgotten.

"It is a process that does not have enough funding as of yet," he said. "So, there is a lot of concern for the AFL soldiers, the ex-soldiers, as to when they get their payments, and whether there will be enough payments, and whether they will get as much in their payments as some of the ex-combatants did."

Liberia recently held its first post-war election for a new parliament. The ballot also served as a first round in the race for president of Liberia.

Though polling went smoothly in the first round, Mr. Risley says the ex-soldiers' protest demonstrates the country remains volatile before the run-off election set for November 8.

"Nobody was injured. For the most part, the protests were over by lunchtime," said Mr. Risley. "And they certainly gave the United Nations a taste of the sort of small amounts of disruption and violence that could have been much worse here and have not been through this entire election period."

U.N. officials say their 15,000 peacekeepers will be on high alert when Liberians go to the polls next month to select either former government minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf or ex-soccer star George Weah as president.