MONROVIA, 15 June (IRIN) - Liberia's largest military barracks was looted by its own soldiers on Tuesday evening following a street riot in the capital Monrovia over non-payment of salary arrears and severance benefits.
Onlookers watched aghast as soldiers carried off ceiling materials, window bars and anything that could be ripped from its dilapidated buildings of the Barclay Training Centre in downtown Monrovia following a rowdy demonstration to demand their unpaid salaries for April and May.
"It was very shameful to see those who are in the national army looting as if they were rebels, proudly toting looted items on their heads within the barracks," said Togba Daniels, a local resident who watched the pillaging.
However, Joe Wylie, the Deputy Defence Minister of Liberia's Transitional Government, was unconcerned.
"There was nothing worthy to be looted in the barracks and in fact, we have been embarking on the relocation of the soldiers from there since the end of May to pave the way for a general renovation exercise by the US government," Wylie, a former rebel commander in Liberia's 14-year civil war, told IRIN.
Last year, the US government pledged US $35 million to recruit and train a new army, but it demanded that the Liberian government pay off its existing soldiers first.
That process is due to be completed by September, according to the latest quarterly report on Liberia submitted to the UN Security Council by Secretary General Koffi Annan on 7 June.
Washington has contracted Dyncorp, a US private military company, to recruit and train a new Liberian army of 4,000 men and women.
Members of the current 15,000-strong Armed Forces of Liberia will be able to apply for a position in the new army, providing they have no record of human rights abuses in the 1989-2003 civil war and have not yet reached the age for mandatory retirement.
All other Liberian men and women, including former combatants from the two main rebel groups, will be able to apply with the same restrictions.
Wylie blamed the Finance Ministry for Tuesday's trouble, saying it had blocked the soldiers' pay.
"The Finance Ministry is responsible for the soldiers' riots. They have been holding up their salary cheques despite pleas that we, the defence officials, have made on behalf of the enlisted men," he said.
According to Wylie, the government owes its soldiers 15 million Liberian dollars (US $267,000) in salary arrears and severance benefits.
"With our initial plan, those recruited into the army after the civil war broke out in 1989 will get US $540. Those who had been serving in the army before that period will get US $2,025 and upwards depending on rank and length of service," he explained.
Angry ringleaders of Tuesday's protests said Wylie and his colleagues at the Defence Ministry had not made any pleas on their behalf. They told IRIN that they would attack government vehicles if they did not get their cash soon.
"We need our money now or else we will continue to cause disturbance in the city. This government is spending a lot of money on expensive vehicles and leaving out our salary payments and if they do not pay us within five days, we will attack all government vehicles," said one officer who goes by the nickname of 'Captain War Face.'
Before deciding to loot their own barracks, more than 100 soldiers set up roadblocks around the Defence Ministry.
They threw stones and metal missiles at the building and prevented Defence Minister Daniel Chea and other officials from leaving the premises for more than two hours.
A detachment of UN peacekeepers eventually came to their rescue.
The Liberian government and the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) is also short of money to pay for the rehabilitation of more than 101,000 former combatants who registered for demobilisation in a disarmament exercise last year.
All were due to be paid a demobilisation allowance of US $300 and receive school education or vocational training, but Annan said in his latest report to the Security Council that 65,000 of them had yet to receive any reintegration benefits.
[This Item is Delivered to the "Africa-English" Service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. For further information, free subscriptions, or to change your keywords, contact e-mail: Irin@ocha.unon.org or Web: http://www.irinnews.org . If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Reposting by commercial sites requires written IRIN permission.]
Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2005