Why Can't They Let the Food In? : An outrage in Liberia as troops battle and more and more innocents die

Liberia's brutal civil war rages on with no end in sight. As the fighting intensifies, a West African summit, scheduled for next week, offers a slim chance for peace.

Mali's President Moussa Traore has called the regional meeting for members of the Economic Community of West African States. There are troubling questions, however, as to whether the meeting will take place. Earlier sessions have been canceled because several members of ECOWAS have chosen sides in the war.

A successful summit could encourage negotiations that lead immediately to a cease-fire and ultimately to a compromise or coalition between the two major rebel groups led by Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson. They are battling to succeed the late Liberian President Samuel K. Doe.

Many Liberians had believed the removal of Doe, who led a vicious coup to take power 10 years ago, was the key to peace. But two months after his controversial capture, horrifying torture and swift murder, the fighting has intensified.

The conflict continues despite the presence of ECOWAS' peace-keeping forces. The troops, primarily Nigerian and Ghanaian soldiers, arrived in late August. That step, viewed as an African response to an African problem, was greeted internationally with optimism. Unfortunately, the African troops have failed to keep the peace, and in some cases, have exacerbated the fighting between the factions.

The fighting and man-made famine have produced another flood of refugees. As many as 763,000--nearly one-third of Liberia's population--have fled to Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, according to a U.N. report released this week. That census of desperation includes thousands of men, women and children--many of them ill--who have walked for days to reach any semblance of refuge.

A U.N. team recently found widespread starvation and disease, especially among women and young children. Countless children, according to a U.N. report, can barely stand because of extreme malnutrition and are expected to die unless they get help soon. Medical help is unavailable, in spite of pervasive malaria, diarrhea and respiratory infections.

While more children die, the rice they need is stranded aboard a ship. The U.N. World Food Program has sent 1,200 metric tons of rice, but the intensified fighting and bombing have forced a delay in the unloading. The United States has sent 1 million tons of rice, which has also been stranded. Land routes are equally futile because of the renewed fighting. The West African summit meeting should attempt to negotiate safe passage for relief workers and humanitarian aid.

Warring factions have massacred innocent men, women and children for nearly a year. This tragedy demands that West African forces ensure the safe passage of desperately needed food.

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