Liberia Border Tense as Ivorian Crisis Intensifies 

Security along the border between Ivory Coast and Liberia is under threat as Ivorian cross to the Liberian side at will, according to UN officials working at the border. Officials here say the Liberian security presence here is ineffective.

Outtara fighters caused panic among refugees in Zleh, a border town in Grand Gedeh County, on Saturday when they crossed in Liberia, shooting as they went.

Immigration Officers at Liberia's Garley Town border

The Ouattara supporters were provoked by Ivorian refugees on the Liberian side who wore Gbagbo T-shirt and shouted anti-Ouattara slogans, according to a Liberian security official who was not authorized to speak to the press.

Sporting Gbagbo’s picture on their white T-shirts, Gbagbo supporters who crossed into Liberia as
refugees, shouted across a narrow portion of the Cavala River, which divides Ivory Coast from Liberia: “Gbagbo forces will defeat you and we will return home.”

One person sustained a gunshot wound in the shoulder, according to the security official.  Liberian security officers did not arrive at the scene until five hours later. Because of poor road conditions, they had to come on foot, the Liberian security official said.

Supporters of either side of the conflict can cross at hundreds of places along the border. Even at official border crossings, security is light. At Garley Town, a small village on the Cavala River, immigration officials guard the border post without uniforms, radio equipment, fire arms or even flashlights.Here the immigration office is made of reed, and has a thatched roof.  There is no flag.  A person on the Liberian side can hold a shouting conversation with someone on the Ivorian side.  Immigration officials say they have no way to contact the head office in Monrovia or the official border post in Toetown. “We have no communication, if anything should happen, there will be no way to send a message for help,” said Captain Smith T. Tarbell, a deputy immigration commander at Garley Town.  The UN has also called for more Liberian security staff at the borders, according to Mr. Thomas Mtaisi , the head of UNMIL’s field office in Zwedru. “The security situation remains a very big threat,” Mtaisi said.

Staff at the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (BIN) said they are severely short of staff.

The $3 million USD allocated to the bureau is not nearly enough to police Liberia’s long borders, according to a high-ranking BIN official who requested anonymity.

“There is nothing BIN can do with so little resources,” said the official. ”Whenever we write a report and submit it to the government, they think we are making up stories, so it is better the press brings it up to show the urgency. The securities of border posts are of national concern and with no logistics, our borders can’t be secure enough to combat any problem.”

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently dispatched 20 Emergency Response Unit officers to the border at Toetown after villages on the opposing side in Ivory Coast were captured by Outtara supporters, members of the ex-rebel group Forces Nouvelles.

Forces Nouvelles fighters barricaded the border in Toetown last week and threatened that anyone crossing the border to go into Ivory Coast would be executed.

Despite the presence of the ERU, two people posing as refugees were caught carrying fire arms and ammunition as they crossed a foot path into Toetown. “One of the men was carrying an M-16 raffle, while the other was carrying an AK-47 fire arm. The two men were caught and turned over to the police when they were reported by Liberian civilians who saw them use the foot path to enter,” Mtaisi said. The men were subsequently released.

Ministry of National Defense spokesman David Dahn said government agencies are working closely with the UN to ensure that the border is secure. “Defense is working in close partnership with other security agencies and with UNMIL to make sure that security at the border is intact,” Dahn said.

Ivory Coast has been embroiled in a political standoff that threatens to turn into civil war since November’s presidential elections. The United Nations and Ivory Coast’s electoral commission named Alassane Outtara the winner of the poll but Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent, has refused to step down, blockading Outtara and his cabinet in a hotel in Ivory Coast’s business capital, Abidjan.

At least 400 people have died in post-election unrest and another 500,000 are internally displaced in Ivory Coast, according to the UN. Some 90,000 refugees have crossed into Liberia whose border towns are struggling to accommodate the newcomers.

The instability in Ivory Coast threatens to destabilize Liberia. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee assembled women in Nigeria this week to deliver a petition for ECOWAS to intervene in the Ivorian Crisis before it disrupts the upcoming Liberian elections to be held in October.  Gbowee   BBC Radio that if nothing is done, anyone wanting to be president in Nigeria or Liberia will follow in Gbagbo’s footsteps and refuse to leave office after losing an election.

Leymah Gbowee and her women’s group once took over a peace hall in Accra when the warlords met there  in 2003 to  negotiate and end to the war between LURD rebels and Charles Taylor’s army.

On local talk shows Liberians express concerns that the Ivory Coast crisis could threaten Liberia’s electoral process.

Last week’s shootout demonstrated, the violence has already begun to spill over.