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Liberia charges 23 over violent plantation protest: police

liberia_mapLiberian police have charged 23 people over riots at a palm oil plantation in which a senior company official was taken hostage and a government minister wounded, the force said on Tuesday.

Protesters with machetes broke into Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) in Sinoe County, in the country’s southeast, on Tuesday last week, looting equipment and workers’ property, according to the Liberian National Police and the company.

“Several weapons including machetes, knives and other deadly instruments were found in their possession,” the police said in a statement on the protesters, who were arrested on Friday last week.

GVL said Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Varney Sirleaf, a nephew of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, had been wounded by the protesters as he tried to negotiate a settlement.

The protest prompted an angry response from the president, who urged Liberians to stand against violent disorder as she returned from a visit to Ivory Coast on Wednesday last week.

“People cannot undermine the interest of the millions of people in this country that are looking for jobs, that want to be safe, that want to make sure that this country progresses,” she told journalists.

A GVL vice-president was visiting from Indonesia when the violence erupted a day earlier, according to a statement from the presidency.

The suspects are facing a raft of charges including attempted murder, looting, aggravated assault and armed robbery, the police said.

A GVL manager was briefly taken hostage and several workers were wounded — two seriously — while employee housing was broken into and vandalised, the company said in a separate statement.

“We are very deeply concerned by the actions of a few individuals acting under the banner of the Butaw Youth Association, who have chosen to disregard the law and public safety and resorted to mob violence, vandalism and looting,” said GVL spokesman Stephen Binda.

The company said up to 25 members of the association had arrived on site, blocking the entrance to workers.

Sirleaf, a well-known political figure who garners widespread respect in the area, was part of a delegation alongside Gender Minister Julia Cassell that had agreed to talk to the protesters.

“The minister was injured by a rock hit at his back. During evacuation, rocks were thrown at vehicles,” GVL said.

United Nations peacekeepers were called in to help police restore order, the company said, adding that the protest had arisen from a dispute over land with local youths.

“GVL policy is to not enter into disputed areas,” it said.

Singapore-based Golden Agri-Resources is the main investor in Golden Veroleum Liberia.

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