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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 September 2006, 08:39 GMT 09:39 UK
Vigilantes take on Liberian gangs
By Ledgerhood Rennie
BBC News, Monrovia

The Liberian capital, Monrovia, is being terrorized by robbers armed with cutlasses and machetes. Commonly known as the "Issaka Boys", the gangs have a reputation for hacking their victims to death.

Machetes retrieved by a police patrol, Liberia
The police are not yet a match for the machete gangs, officials say

In response to the public outcry, the Liberian Justice Ministry has called on residents to protect themselves.

Citing a "police inability to decisively deal with this upsurge in criminal activities", the statement asks "community dwellers to organize themselves into vigilante groups".

Most communities have now moved to set up vigilante groups to protect themselves from the menace.

"We are prepared to defend our neighbourhoods from being attacked by the Issaka Boys," Moses Tom-Kollie, a vigilante leader in the north-eastern suburb of Paynesville, says.

"We will face them, subdue them and turn them over to the police."

'Slow process'

The UN's military and civilian police units, as well as the Liberian police, have stepped up patrols in and around Monrovia.

It takes time for communities that have seen violence over the years to begin to start feeling safe amongst themselves
Anders Johansson
UN mission, Liberia

Armed UN soldiers, accompanied by unarmed Liberian police officers, are out in force around Monrovia, riding about in neighbourhoods at night and conducting random vehicle searches.

Commander Anders Johansson, a spokesman at the UN mission, admits that a lot must be done to boost Liberians' confidence in their security.

"It takes time for communities that have seen violence over the years to begin to start feeling safe amongst themselves," he said.

He plays down Monrovians' criticism that the 15,000 UN troops keeping the peace in the country have not done much to stop armed banditry since the end of the 14-year civil war.

"We have been and always will be on top of the security situation," he says.

But for victims of the Issaka Boys more needs to be done.

One man was returning to Monrovia from rural Liberia when they surrounded him and demanded his money and belongings.

"When I refused they started gashing me with their long and fearful cutlasses leaving me to bleed profusely from all parts of my body, " James Karmon told a local newspaper.

"When I regained consciousness, I found myself lying in the hospital. Thank God they didn't kill me as they usually do," he said.

Big challenges

Now that a UN arms embargo on Liberia has been partially lifted, the residents want a robust Liberian police force, armed to combat the criminals.

Police patrol in Monrovia
Liberian police have stepped up patrols, backed by UN personnel

Liberian Police Chief Munah Beatrice Sieh alluded to that when she briefed a squadron preparing for night patrols.

"You have been doing your best under the circumstances," she said, characterising the security forces as a biblical David taking on the Goliath-like criminal gangs, comprised of ex-fighters.

Cdr Johansson of the UN says the Liberian police must be armed gradually.

"We aren't going to rush into things. We must make sure that everybody is ready before we take that next step," he said.

Monrovia's deplorable roads and its lack of public electricity are among the challenges the UN mission faces as it tries to combat crime in the Liberian capital.

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