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Donor Conference Seeks $488 Million for War-Torn Liberia - 2004-02-05

Liberia, largely ignored by the international community during two decades of civil strife, is in the world spotlight this week. An impressive cast of leaders and interested parties is gathered at the United Nations to hear an appeal for 500 million dollars to help with the country's post-war reconstruction. The grim picture of Liberia's recent past is being offset by a ray of hope.

International aid officials say this could be Liberia's last chance. After years of war that traumatized virtually every citizen, it is generally regarded as a failed state.

But officials say because it is small, Liberia is one place where international assistance can make a difference. Speaking to potential donors Thursday, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios urged the international community to seize the opportunity to make Liberia a success.

"With an estimated population of only three million people, concentrated assistance can have a tremendous effect," he said. "Liberia is key to the future stability of West Africa, so this effort has enormous consequences for the region, not just for the country."

At a news conference Thursday, special U.N. envoy to Liberia Jacques Paul Klein says considering Liberia's strategic importance, the world community has an obligation to help.

"We're not rebuilding Paris or London here, we're just trying to rebuild a basic infrastructure of Liberia," he said. "Twenty-four years of neglect, 24 years of mayhem, chaos, war, murder and an international community that has largely ignored the problem until suddenly they were seized with it in Sierra Leone and in the neighborhood, and then the realization last summer, that unless Liberia is stable, and this is Liberia's last chance, that the whole of west Africa remains unstable."

Speakers at the conference are praising Liberia's interim leader Gyude Bryant as a man who can make a difference. Mr. Bryant is to address the conference Friday, along with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

The international attention is generating new hope among Liberians that the country can turn around. Legendary Liberian soccer star George Weah just returned to his home country as a U.N. goodwill ambassador after years of self-imposed exile. He told VOA he saw a new mood of hope.

"Liberia can come back, in the sense that Liberians are quick to forget, Liberians are very understanding people, they are ready to reunite for the good future of Liberia," he said. "Liberia can come back."

Initial response to the appeal for Liberia has been encouraging. Officials say they have received requests for seating more than 100 national representatives for Friday's conference session, far more than expected.

The United States has already announced it will pledge $200 million at the conference. That's more than 40 percent of the $488 million being sought. The European Union is set to donate another $70 million.

In addition, the U.S. Congress has appropriated another $250 million to finance peacekeeping and humanitarian aid for Liberia.