Human Rights Watch says mercenaries in eastern Liberia are running deadly cross-border raids into Ivory Coast and recruiting child soldiers. The international rights group reports Liberia has failed to investigate and prosecute Liberian and Ivorian fighters who set up camp in Liberia after committing atrocities during the 2011 post-election crisis in Ivory Coast.
As former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo awaits his first hearing on charges of crimes against humanity this month at the Hague, Human Rights Watch says pro-Gbagbo mercenaries continue to run deadly raids into western Ivory Coast.
Gbagbo lost a November 2010 presidential election, but refused to step down, sparking a nationwide conflict that killed 3,000 people. Ivorian militiamen and Liberian mercenaries who fought on the Gbagbo side took refuge in eastern Liberia.
Human Rights Watch says those fighters, motivated by revenge and disputes over land rights, have waged four cross-border attacks in the past year that have killed at least 40 people, including children. A new HRW report says the attackers are targeting ethnic communities believed to support current Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.
HRW Ivory Coast researcher, Matthew Wells, said Human Rights Watch interviewed members of a core group of 100 to 150 fighters who are planning and carrying out the attacks.
"The mercenaries and militiamen made clear that their ambitions are much larger and that they plan to conduct additional attacks throughout the rest of this year and beyond," Wells said.
Wells said their level of organization was particularly concerning.
"They have set up around gold mines along the border of Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia. They are using the money from gold mining to fund recruitment and mobilization to conduct additional cross-border attacks into Cote d'Ivoire. They also told us they are receiving money from individuals in Ghana, which is where much of the pro-Gbagbo military and political elite remain to again finance these attacks," Wells said.
Human Rights Watch said mercenaries are recruiting Liberian children as young as 14 into their ranks.
Since the Ivory Coast conflict ended in April 2011, Liberian authorities have detained more than 100 Liberians and Ivorians suspected of mercenary activity. But Human Rights Watch says many have been released. In an investigation published in December 2011, the U.N. Panel of Experts on Ivory Coast said many more fighters were thought to have entered Liberia and evaded authorities.
Human Rights Watch says among those released by Liberian authorities have been two commanders suspected by both the United Nations and Human Rights Watch of war crimes and human-rights abuses during the 2011 crisis.
Wells said the cross-border raids are a threat to regional stability, and Liberia needs to "get its head out the sand."
"These people are often just crossing in the middle of the night attacking a village and then going back to Liberia so the solution really has to come more from the Liberia side than from the Ivorian side because all of this planning is being done in Liberia," Wells said.
Dense vegetation and the sheer expanse of Liberia's 700-kilometer border with Ivory Coast make it difficult to patrol.
Human Rights Watch says on at least one occasion, Liberian authorities tried to intervene to stop a cross-border attack. The group says Liberian security forces arrested 76 Ivorian and Liberian fighters, but the men were later released for lack of evidence.
Human Rights Watch says Liberian authorities have routinely failed to follow through on investigations and prosecutions of suspected mercenaries, despite provisions in the nation's penal code that would allow them to do so.
Liberia's Information Minister, Lewis Brown, said he disagrees with the report's findings. He said the government is well aware of the risks these armed groups pose to Ivory Coast and Liberia, and is taking appropriate action.
"There is a high level of commitment and engagement from either side to rid our border, our vast border, of the presence of non-state actors," Brown said.
The minister said Liberian and Ivorian forces as well as the U.N. peacekeeping missions to both countries would "very shortly" begin participating in joint exercises to further secure the border area.