Liberia Launches Military Campaign To Route Rebels

Liberia is launching its first large-scale military operation since the end of its brutal civil war. Liberia's army, which has been trained by the U.S. military over the last six years, is going after mercenaries and rebels who are using thick forest as cover from which to launch ambushes in neighboring Ivory Coast.

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The West African country of Liberia has launched a large-scale military operation, but it's not in response to violence within its own borders, but rather to prevent violence in neighboring Ivory Coast.

Last month, militants based in Liberia crossed into Ivory Coast and killed more than 20 people, including U.N. peacekeepers. And as Tamasin Ford reports now, Liberia's troops are now targeting those militants.

TAMASIN FORD, BYLINE: Several hundred Liberian forces are making their base on the grounds of a school on the outskirts of Zwedru in the east of the country. Desks are piled up in the courtyard. The classrooms have been turned into sleeping places. The school canteen is now the medic room, and the army is in full combat mode. Soldiers are preparing dinner. Huge cauldrons of rice with a stew of potato greens and chicken sizzle on the coal fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken) Chow ready.

FORD: Chow ready, the universal term adopted from the U.S. military meaning grub's up. Since 2006, Liberian forces have been getting training from U.S. forces. Around 50 mentors comprised of Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy service members serve up to one-year tours in Liberia. It's part of a much broader U.S. policy to help the West African nation recover from decades of turmoil.

Liberia today is an emerging democracy led by Africa's first female president. But it's been accused of allowing militants from neighboring Ivory Coast to use its eastern forests as a base and of ignoring involvement by Liberian mercenaries.

After last month's deadly attack, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ordered Liberian forces to root out the militants. Captain Gboe is the commander of the operation.

CAPTAIN GBOE: We are here to search for them, locate them wherever they are. Their training camps, we destroy. Wherever they are we arrest if we can or we destroy them forever.

FORD: Soldiers with phrases like born to kill, killer and teamwork scrawled in ink on their helmets, jump into the back of a pickup truck. They're on their way into the city to get more food for the troops. But nonetheless, they travel armed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So I have to get my rifle. She's my girlfriend. She has to be with me all the times just in case.

FORD: It's an AK-47 right?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a powerful weapon, the AK-47. Anywhere I go, I carry it with me. When I sleep in the jungle, it sleep with me.

FORD: The idea of Liberians fighting again is a terrifying thought for many here, but the new army is desperately trying to erase its image of the past. It was disbanded after the civil war ended in 2003. Ex-combatants are among the new recruits, but the army says they want to be a force inclusive of everyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

FORD: Corporal Greene, the cook of the operation, was one of the first graduates of the new army.

CORPORAL GREENE: People feel that most of the guys who did cause any harm and atrocity during the war time are the same guys within this - in this military. All I can do now is I ensure them that this military is a new kind of military. It is true we got guys who fought in the past, and they were vetted well, because as the old guys get into it, and we are a new breed, we try to transform their minds.

FORD: The troops have yet to encounter the armed militants, but groups of soldiers daily head out into the dense rain forest in search of them. The U.S. military mentors remain in the capital, Monrovia, to continue to provide training to the rest of the force. Liberians are waiting to see if their new army is up to the challenge. For NPR News, I'm Tamasin Ford in Liberia.

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