MONROVIA (Reuters) - Security forces in the Liberian capital fired live rounds and tear gas on Wednesday to disperse a stone-throwing crowd trying to break an Ebola quarantine imposed on their neighborhood, as the death toll from the epidemic in West Africa hit 1,350.
In the sprawling oceanfront West Point neighborhood of Monrovia, at least four people were injured in clashes with security forces, witnesses said. It was unclear whether anyone was wounded by the gunfire, though a Reuters photographer saw a young boy with his leg largely severed just above the ankle.
Liberian authorities introduced a nationwide curfew on Tuesday and put the West Point neighborhood under quarantine to curb the spread of the disease.
“The soldiers are using live rounds,” said army spokesman Dessaline Allison, adding: “The soldiers applied the rules of engagement. They did not fire on peaceful citizens. There will be medical reports if (an injury) was from bullet wounds.”
The World Health Organization said that the countries hit by the worst ever outbreak of the deadly virus were beginning to suffer shortages of fuel, food and basic supplies after shipping companies and airlines suspended services to the region.
The epidemic of the hemorrhagic fever, which can kill up to 90 percent of those it infects, is ravaging the three small West African states of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. It also has a toehold in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy and most populous country.
Liberia - where the death toll is rising fastest - said its Ministry of Health warehouse had run out of rubber boots and bottles of hand sanitizer, essential for preventing the spread of the disease.
Still struggling to recover from a devastating 1989-2003 civil war, Liberia recorded 95 deaths in the two days to Aug. 18, the World Health Organization said. Since it was discovered in remote southeastern Guinea in March, the overall death toll from the outbreak has reached 1,350 from a total of 2,473 cases.
Witnesses said the clashes in West Point started after security forces early on Wednesday blocked roads to the neighborhood with tables, chairs and barbed wire. Security forces also came in to escort the local commissioner out of the neighborhood, they said.
Attempts to isolate the worst affected areas of the country and neighboring Sierra Leone have raised fears of unrest in one of the world’s poorest regions should communities start to run low on food and medical supplies.
“I don’t have any food and we’re scared,” said Alpha Barry, a resident of West Point who said he came from Guinea and has four children under age 13.
In an effort to calm tensions, authorities on Wednesday started delivering tonnes of rice, oil and essential foodstuffs to West Point, residents and a government official said.
The World Food Program has begun emergency food shipments to quarantined zones where a million people may be at risk of shortages. The WHO has appealed to companies and international organizations to continue providing supplies and services to countries at risk, saying there was a low risk of contagion.
The Ebola outbreak is putting off thousands of tourists who had planned trips to Africa this year, especially Asians, including to destinations thousands of miles from the nearest infected community such as Kenya and South Africa.
Containing the outbreak requires large numbers of specialist staff to map the epidemic, track people who have had contact with sufferers, and to work in isolation and treatment centers.
The WHO has pledged to massively scale up the international response, but so far there has been only a trickle of additional foreign healthcare workers to affected nations.
“The fear factor is high,” Francis Kasolo, the coordinator of a WHO sub-regional Ebola outbreak coordination center told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We try and try. It is an ongoing process. The offer is not large. And they have to be the right profile of person.”
West Point residents said they were given no warning of the blockade, which prevented them from getting to work or buying food. Many people in impoverished parts of Monrovia buy food to eat each day rather than stocking it.
Residents also said the closure immediately caused prices of basic goods, including drinking water sold in sachets, to soar.
“We just saw it (the blockade) this morning. We came out and we couldn’t go anywhere. I haven’t heard from anybody in authority what happened,” Barry, 45, who works as a money changer, told Reuters.
The task authorities face is made harder by misinformation. One West Point resident told Reuters the government had sealed off the neighborhood in order to bring the disease in.
A crowd at West Point looted a temporary holding center for suspected Ebola cases at the weekend, 17 of whom fled. All 17 were now accounted for and being treated, and the government has abandoned plans for the center due to fierce resistance.
Meanwhile, Democratic Republic of Congo has sent its health minister and a team of experts to the remote Equateur province after several people died there from a disease with Ebola-like symptoms, a local official and a professor said.
It was not immediately clear if there was any connection with Ebola.
(This version of the story corrects an August 20 story to make clear in headline, first paragraph it was soldiers not police who opened fire)
Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn and Emma Farge in Dakar, Alphonso Toweh in Washington, writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; editing by Daniel Flynn, G Crosse and Robin Pomeroy