Monrovia (AFP) – The United Nations has vowed its peacekeepers will not abandon Liberia and will "stay the course" despite the Ebola epidemic raging across the west African nation.
The UN mission has been in the country since the end of its civil war in 2003, but has been downsizing gradually from a peak of 15,000 troops and handing security responsibilities back to local police.
"We are not, as a peacekeeping operation, leaving Liberia," UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told AFP late Thursday.
"We are here to stay the course and to help the people of Liberia and its neighbours to get through this terrible crisis."
Ladsous is in Liberia to assess how the mission, known as UNMIL, can support the fight against Ebola and has held meetings with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and senior cabinet ministers.
"One has to recognise that a peacekeeping mission is not a public health operator. This is not what we are trained for, this is not what is intended for us to do," he said.
"But at the same time, we are there to support the country… to solve the root causes of a very long crisis."
Liberia was devastated by 14 years of back-to-back civil wars which broke out in 1989 and left more than 200,000 people dead.
Its health services were on the slow road to recovery when the worst Ebola outbreak the world has ever seen began in neighbouring Guinea at the start of the year.
Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have seen almost 5,000 cases and 2,400 deaths so far this year, according to the World Health Organization.
Health workers in Liberia reported being overwhelmed by new Ebola cases on Wednesday, with the WHO predicting an "exponential increase" in infections across west Africa.
WHO chief Margaret Chan told a news conference on Friday there is not a single bed left to treat Ebola patients in Liberia.
The agency says that among the country's 2,300 cases and 1,200 deaths, some 152 health workers have been infected and 79 have died.
Ladsous acknowledged that the actual death toll was probably considerably higher, however.
"We know that the actual numbers of victims are definitely higher and that as days pass they rise exponentially. Now it is — everyone recognises — a particularly bad time in Liberia," he said.
Ladsous was due to travel to Ghana on Friday to visit a logistics hub which has been set up to respond to the regional Ebola crisis.