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Liberians Hopeful Debt Relief May Come Soon

Following a meeting of the world's major money lending bodies, Liberians say they are hopeful the country will soon be forgiven hundreds of millions of dollars in overdue debt payments. Debt relief for Liberia was a hot issue at the meeting with many countries, governing bodies and even celebrities taking on Liberia's cause. Kari Barber reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Liberia amassed about $900 million in arrears to the International Monetary Fund when the government failed to make payments in the 1980s and through the years of civil war.

Since that time, experts say, Liberia has cleaned up government and economic policies in efforts to get debt relief.

Following the IMF and World Bank meeting in Washington D.C., Liberia's debt relief remains uncertain with some countries resisting a proposed plan. The IMF has not released the names of those countries or their exact reasons.

Liberian Prince Kreplah of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty group says he expects the United States to take the lead to speed debt relief on account of the countries' historical ties. "We think it is about time that we all start to show one another that as countries, the U.S. and Liberia, that we care for one another in difficult times," he said.

U.S. President George Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both recently met with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and urged other nations to support debt relief.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick and rock singer and philanthropist Bono also called for the IMF to forgive Liberia its debts.

IMF Managing Director Rodrigo de Rato issued a public letter to Bono saying the IMF is impressed with Liberia's turnaround and is just waiting on member nations to approve funding for the plan.

Liberia Deputy Minister of Finance Tarnue Mawolo says paying back these debts has crippled the war-scarred nation's efforts to rebuild and create jobs. He says an improved economy is important to keep conflict from again engulfing the nation and the fragile region. "Knowing where we come from in our recent history and the critical role Liberia played in terms of the crisis in the subregion, it is important that we consolidate the peace here as a basis for moving peace across the subregion," he said.

Timothy Armitage of London-based research group Global Insight says the IMF is happy with how Liberia has performed since its emergence from war and he expects their debt to be cut. But he says it takes time for a country to prove its commitment to economic reform will last. "Following something through over a few months compared with a couple of years takes a different caliber and a different stance and it shows your commitment to reform rather than a short term, 'I would like debt relief so I will follow the right policies,'" he said.

Clearing the debt from overdue payments would open the door for more extensive relief of the billions Liberia owes international lenders and allow the country to take on new loans for development.