Mobs broke down the gates at the U.N. headquarters and looters jumped the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound on Thursday, as even African peacekeepers reportedly joined in the widespread plunder of Liberia’s warring capital.
Relief workers warned that a dangerous scarcity of food, medicine and fuel, compounded by a fifth straight day of fighting in Liberia’s capital, will worsen matters for a population already among the poorest in West Africa.
“The fighting and ongoing massive looting of homes, market and shops has sparked off widespread food shortages for civilians in the city,” said Tarek El Guindi, director of the U.N. World Food Program in Liberia. “A serious humanitarian crisis is likely to erupt if fighting continues.”
“Lord, please help us out of this madness - your children are dying,” lamented one Monrovia resident, housewife Maima Jones.
Dozens of bodies, mostly those of young men, lay by the roadside in downtown Monrovia amid burned-out vehicles and shops that have been looted since the worst fighting in more than three years broke out Saturday between rebels and government troops.
U.N. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said West African peacekeepers are believed to have joined in the looting of Monrovia, virtually paralyzing the U.N. food distribution system that feeds about 1.5 million people throughout Liberia. More than 23,000 tons of food is sitting in U.N. warehouses in Monrovia.
U.N. spokesman Sylvana Foa said communications with the U.N. headquarters in Monrovia were cut after mobs stormed the gates Thursday morning. She said all staff members were reported safe and holed up at the U.S. Embassy compound.
Buildings used by UNICEF and the U.N. Development Program were also looted, along with the motor pool of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Foa said from New York.
Aid workers from Doctors Without Borders said they had treated dozens of people for bullet wounds and were running short of medical supplies because sniper fire prevented them from getting to the central hospital.
A senior defense official speaking from Washington said that as a result of the unrest, the number of U.S. military personnel working to evacuate Americans and other foreigners was increased from 600 to 900.
“The situation is very tenuous,” U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said.
Foa said reports from the U.N. mission in Liberia spoke of a “frenzy of looting” and that it appeared leaders of the warring factions had lost control of their own fighters.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said a few looters had jumped the wall at the 27-acre American compound where up to 20,000 people have taken refuge, but were quickly run off by U.S. Special Forces.
As of late Thursday, the U.S. military had evacuated 712 people from the compound - 130 of them Americans, the rest citizens of at least 35 other countries. An earlier evacuation figure of 156 Americans was an error, based on a mistaken number from a helicopter pilot, U.S. officials said.
About 400 Americans remain in Liberia, mostly because street fighting has prevented many from getting to the embassy compound.
Defense Secretary William Perry told reporters at a Pentagon news conference that the evacuation of U.S. citizens was going smoothly despite the chaos.
“Most of those American citizens have gathered at the embassy and we’re lifting them out from the embassy compound,” Perry said. “Quite a few citizens are still at other locations in the city and those who want to be lifted out are now redeploying to the embassy and we will be prepared to lift them out from there.”
As a result of the crisis - the third to result in U.S. evacuations from Monrovia since 1990 - three U.S. ships carrying roughly 700 U.S. Marines were ordered to Liberia.