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Liberia Celebrates 156th Anniversary of Independence - 2003-07-26


Liberia celebrates its 156th independence anniversary on Saturday. But 14 years of civil conflict and uncertainty about the future weigh heavily on the minds of many Liberians.

Liberia was founded in the early 1800s by the American Colonization Society as a home for freed slaves. It became an independent country in 1847 and is Africa's oldest republic. From the time of independence until 1980, the country was ruled by the descendents of those freed slaves, called Americo-Liberians. In 1980, Samuel Doe overthrew President William Tolbert in a bloody military coup that some say marked the beginning of a cycle of violence in Liberia.

The current situation in their country has dampened joy of this Independence Day for Liberians here in the United States. John Lloyd is chairman of the Coalition of Concerned Liberians.

"Throughout America, Liberian communities have canceled their Independence Day celebrations, and we are now resolved to a solemn mood in respect to the death and destruction which has engulfed our nation today," he explained. "We are sad as our nation bleeds. And our commemoration this year has been focused on prayer and religious activities that will trigger a hope and the realization of peace and tranquility in Liberia."

The country has been dominated in recent days by fighting for control of Monrovia between government and the rebel LURD forces. LURD spokesman Kabineh Janneh explains what triggered some of the worst fighting in Monrovia in seven years.

"You will recall that for more than three weeks, LURD's forces were observing the cease-fire, at which time Mr. Taylor ordered his forces to attack our positions," h enoted. " As a consequence of this, some of our soldiers were killed, including a very senior commander. I think this is what occasioned the recent rounds of fighting."

But Liberian defense minister Daniel Chea accused the rebel LURD of indiscriminately shelling the capital.

"The situation is very serious as a result of days of indiscriminate shelling of the city of Monrovia, especially downtown and the diplomatic quarters by LURD forces that have taken positions in and around the port. We have spent the last three days trying to keep them from crossing three key bridges," he said.

At mid-week, West African leaders decided they would send the first group of peacekeepers to Liberia. General Sheikh Omar Diarra is chief of military affairs for the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS.

"The members of the Mediation and Security Council decided that ECOWAS will deploy immediately a vanguard force of two Nigerian battalions," said the general. "The mission of this force will be to secure the cease-fire, create a separation zone between the belligerents, and prepare the ground for the deployment of the main body of the stabilization force."

Most Liberians want the United States to contribute troops to an international peacekeeping operation, and President Taylor has made that a condition of his departure.

Friday, President Bush ordered U.S. troops to be positioned off the coast of war-torn Liberia. The White House says the troops will support West African peacekeepers once they are deployed. The statement says the peacekeepers' task is to reinforce a cease-fire and to create conditions for humanitarian assistance to begin in the country. Meanwhile, the peace talks sponsored by ECOWAS, involving the various Liberian parties, have been under way in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, for nearly two months. The talks are aimed at creating a transitional government that would replace President Charles Taylor if and when he decides to leave.