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Liberia's Army Rebuilt to Defend Country

During Liberia's civil war, the national army and rebel factions were guilty of gross human-rights abuses. Civilians were killed, villages looted and torched. Many civilians said they had nowhere to turn for safety. Now, those helping to restore security in Liberia and rebuild its armed forces say they are building an army that will protect people. Kari Barber reports from Monrovia there is a sense of nervousness as United Nations peacekeepers begin to withdraw.

These soldiers are part of Liberia's new army, which numbers only a couple of thousand. After the war which ended in 2003, the U.N. helped demobilize former fighters while the new government, with United States help, began recruiting. New trainees must meet much higher eligibility requirements.

Private American companies are training the Liberian soldiers. The military contractors were hired and paid for by the U.S. government.

These soldiers are being drilled on battlefield tactics.

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Wyatt of the U.S. Army is in charge of the training. He says there have been concerns about the use of private contractors. "The question is not whether they are private or they are public, the question is whether they are competent and doing their proper job. This is not the government's army, this is not the American army, this is the people of Liberia's army," Wyatt said.

The U.N. mission also established training for the national police force, which is expected to take on many of the peacekeepers' roles. Unlike U.N. troops, police are not allowed to carry guns.

Skirmishes and crime are frequent in Liberia, and it has been difficult for police to gain respect.

However, United Nations spokesman Ban Malor says the U.N. drawdown needs to happen. "There comes a time that people need to face the reality that you cannot have international presence, military-wise a U.N. mission presence, forever. Nervousness is understandable."

This Ministry of Defense office was a command center during the war, where one official says Liberia attempted to destabilize the region. Liberia's post-war Defense Minister Brownie Samukai says this will never happen again. "Not one inch of Liberian territory will be used to destablize our neighbors, that is a cardinal principle of securing our borders so that none of our neighbors will have any concern that any inch of our territory will be used to destablize their country," Samukai said.

Newly trained soldiers say this military will not be abusive like security forces under warlord and President Charles Taylor. An officer under Taylor, Oyango Kole, says he agrees with a requirement that new soldiers have clean human rights records.

"Because we do not want anybody out there that people are going to be spotting and saying 'This guy did that during the war, and he did this and that' - that is old wine in a new bottle,” Kole said. “We do not want that again."

Army restructuring began a little over two years ago.

Trainers say they do not know when the new army will be activated. Rebuilding a military, they say, must be a careful process in a country scarred by past abuses.