MONROVIA, 15 February (IRIN) - The United States has hired DynCorp International, a privately-owned security company to train a new 4,000-man Liberian army, a US government official in Liberia said on Tuesday.
Andy Michels, a US State Department official who heads the Security Reform Team in Monrovia, told IRIN that Washington had earmarked US$35 million to recruit and train a new army in Liberia and Dyncorp was ready to start the project within the next few weeks.
DynCorp, based in Reston, Virginia, is a company which specialises in security and aircraft maintenance services. Over the past three years it has been hired by the US government to train new police forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and Liberia. It has just been acquired by the US venture capital group Veritas Capital.
"Dyncorp is the State Department implementing partner in the security reform programme in Liberia and it has been carrying out the training of a new police force....it will handle the restructuring of the army as well," Michels said.
"We are basically ready to begin within the next weeks. However our ability to begin is predicated by certain actions of the national government," he added. These included the voluntary relocation of civilians currently living in Camp Shecfflin, a former military barracks situated on the road from Monrovia to Roberts international airport, which is due to become the army's new training base.
Michels declined to say whether former combatants in Liberia's 1989-2003 civil war would be eligible for recruitment to the new army.
Last year, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Liberia disarmed and demobilised 103,000 people who claimed to have fought for former president Charles Taylor or the two rebel groups which opposed him; Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL).
The US official simply said that Dyncorp would "create a new state-of-the art army, trained to international standards and composed of soldiers who are carefully recruited, vetted and trained to be subordinate to the rule of law."
After first promising to recruit and train a new Liberian police force from scratch, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) ended up last year by retraining a large number of former policemen who served under Taylor's disgraced government. The new Liberian police force is due to reach its full strength of 3,500 officers in 2006.
Asked who would be eligible to join the new army, Michels said: "It starts with the best Liberians who are willing to come forward and serve their country and to ensure carefully that these Liberians did not commit any human rights violations...(that they are) people of integrity and civil virtues."
The United States, which has maintained close links Liberia since the West African country was founded by freed American slaves in the early 19th century, has pledged a total of $200 million for reforming the security sector.
US ambassador John Blaney said in December that the first batch of army recruits would start training during the first half of 2005.
"We are prepared to train up to 4,000 soldiers, starting firstly with two motorised infantry batallions," Major Ryan McMullen, the US defence attache, told IRIN last week.
However, neither he nor Michels would say when the first Liberian army units would become operational, enabling UNMIL to start winding down the strength of its 15,000 strong peacekeeping force.
Before the civil war, Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) consisted of around 6,000 soldiers. However government army was decimated by the rebellion launched by Taylor's guerrilla movement in 1989 and was never properly reconstituted thereafter.
A new national army was supposed to have been trained and formed by the peacekeeping force sent to Liberia by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) following a 1996 peace agreement, but the plan was never implemented.
Following Taylor's election as president in 1997, he relied on a series of militia groups led by his former commanders in the bush war to maintain security. These expanded rapidly after fighting restarted in 1999.
Liberian Defence Ministry spokesman Mauazu Kromah said arrangements to complete the demobilisation of former government soldiers before new recruitment could begin.
"We have almost completed the redocumentation of the AFL, aimed at having a proper record system of the army to determine those to be demobilised and properly retired," he told IRIN. "This redocumentation is the first step towards building a new army."
Jacques Klein, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative in Liberia, suggested shortly after taking up his post two years ago that Liberia should abolish its army altogether, saying "armies sit around playing cards and plotting coups."
Klein, a former US air force general, suggested at the time that Liberia could make do with a decent police force and a well-trained border security force of 600 to 700 men.
Michels said that besides financing the training of a new Liberian army the United States would refurbish the Defence Ministry and retrain its staff. It would also refurbish military barracks around the country, he added.
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