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(New York) - Fighters who took part in Liberia's armed conflict have been raping and looting civilians in areas that lack international peacekeepers, despite a ceasefire and peace agreement in the country, Human Rights Watch said today in a briefing paper released ahead of a major international donors' conference on Liberia in early February.

"Despite the peace accords, civilians in rural Liberia are still being raped, looted and forced to work for fighters from all the warring factions," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa division. "More peacekeepers are needed to stem the violence and ensure that the disarmament program is successful." 

The briefing paper describes the serious human rights abuses - including looting, forced labor, rape and other forms of sexual violence - that have occurred in recent months in areas controlled by former government forces or by one of the two former rebel movements. Research by Human Rights Watch revealed a consistent and brutal pattern of sexual violence against women and girls as well as reprisal attacks by fighters allied to each of the warring parties. 

International donor countries should contribute more troops for the peacekeeping mission, provide additional support for Liberian civil society, and insist upon accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Liberia's war, Human Rights Watch said. 

"The international donors need to recognize that there are enormous challenges ahead. Liberia needs more peacekeepers, reconstruction money, and a firm stance on accountability - in other words, no amnesty for past or current abuses," Takirambudde said. 

Just over half of the 15,000 peacekeepers authorized by the United Nations have arrived in Liberia to establish security, and the vast majority remains concentrated in and around the capital, Monrovia. Less than ten percent of the international police force has been deployed. 

Security remains the primary concern for thousands of civilians in rural areas, despite the signing of a peace agreement and the deployment of a U.N. mission. Human Rights Watch urged the warring factions to immediately end abuses against civilians. 

In the past year, Liberia has experienced dramatic developments. In June and July, the main Liberian insurgent group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), attempted to capture Monrovia and indiscriminately shelled the capital, resulting in over 2,000 civilians wounded and scores killed. The fighting ended only in August with the intervention of regional West African peacekeepers and the departure of Liberia's then-president Charles Taylor to Nigeria. 

Nigeria has failed to transfer Taylor to Sierra Leone, where in March he was indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for war crimes and crimes against humanity linked to his role in supporting that country's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels. The regional peacekeepers were replaced by a U.N. peacekeeping mission in October, but the contributing countries have been slow to provide the full 15,000 troops required to maintain security and perform numerous other tasks in the country. 

Human Rights Watch will also release a report on child combatants in Liberia on February 2 in advance of the international donors' conference on Liberia, which is due to be co-chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on February 5 and 6.

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