Civil war rages in Liberia at suburban beach area

Saturday, June 7, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Fighting raged Friday in a northern suburb of the capital of civil-war divided Liberia, and terrified civilians fled by the thousands as rebels took control of refugee camps around Monrovia.

About 600 rebels attacked the Atlantic Ocean beach suburb of Virginia at dawn, Defense Minister Daniel Chea said. Government forces were pushing back the insurgents from the suburb's Organization of African Unity bridge, he said.

At least five government soldiers and "around 20" rebels were killed in the fighting, Chea -- in military fatigues and bulletproof vest -- told reporters before jumping in a vehicle headed to the front. The figures could not be independently verified.

One of the west African nation's two rebel movements has swept south toward Monrovia in recent days, pressing to take the capital and drive out embattled warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor -- indicted this week on war crimes by an international tribunal in Sierra Leone for his involvement in a vicious 10-year war there.

Friday's fighting took place even as government and rebel negotiators met in nearby Ghana to discuss a peace settlement.

Heavy downpours on Friday made roads nearly impassable but evidently did not halt the offensive. Heavy explosions were heard from the battle zone at midday.

Countless civilians fought rising water to escape, saying they feared being caught behind rebel lines.

"We have every cause to run, because we don't know the rebels and their attitudes," said Virginia resident Martha Wilson, 38, who carried a baby on her back and foam mattresses balanced on her head in the soaking rain.

"We don't hear about life behind rebel lines, and we don't want to be the first to experience that."

All seven of Monrovia's camps for internally displaced people are now under the control of insurgents, World Food Program spokesman Ramin Rafirasme said in Dakar, Senegal.

An exodus from the camps, which lie four to six miles outside the capital and housed an estimated 115,000 people, was gaining momentum Friday, he said.

"People are fleeing in all directions. Loads of people. Thousands or tens of thousands. We can't quantify them," Rafirasme said. "The situation remains highly volatile."

The rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, has battled since 1999 to oust Taylor, who was elected president in 1997, a year after a devastating seven-year civil war ended.

Taylor sparked Liberia's war in 1989 with a failed coup attempt and emerged from the conflict as the country's strongest warlord. The war killed hundreds of thousands in Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century.

Despite the latest fighting, negotiators representing Taylor, LURD and a newly emerged insurgent group based in the country's southeast met Friday along with international mediators for peace talks in Ghana.

Taylor was in Ghana on Wednesday for the talks' opening ceremony when the joint U.N.-Sierra Leone court unveiled its indictment accusing him of trafficking guns and diamonds with Sierra Leonean rebels, who killed, raped, kidnapped and maimed tens of thousands of the country's civilians.

Taylor speedily returned to Monrovia that day an international fugitive; there was no apparent attempt by Ghanaian authorities to arrest him.

On Thursday, Taylor told reporters that there had been a coup attempt, supported by unidentified embassies, while he visited Ghana. Vice President Moses Blah and two of his bodyguards were detained in the attempt.

On Friday, American officials strongly denied a reported claim by Blah that the U.S. embassy had urged him to take control in Taylor's absence.

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