Liberian troops defend capital

Sunday, June 8, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Explosions and machine-gun fire echoed in Liberia's besieged capital Saturday as President Charles Taylor's forces fought rebels pressing on the outskirts, sending tens of thousands of desperate residents to the U.S. Embassy seeking sanctuary.

Early morning artillery and machine-gun fire in western suburbs drove residents from their homes, raised the specter of street fighting in the capital's crowded center and prompted terrified Liberian civilians to throng the gates of the U.S. Embassy.

Bearing foam mattresses and other hastily gathered belongings, the masses huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in the rain on a muddy, rocky hill outside the embassy compound, asking for help from America -- from where freed slaves sailed in the 19th century to found their war-ruined country.

"Send the Marines to guard us," cried Spencer Suku, a student. "The place we are in now, only God can save us."

Fighting eased markedly by afternoon, as rebels announced a cease-fire concerning humanitarian groups.

The rebels, urged on by U.S. authorities, pledged to stop their push on Monrovia for the time being. Many displaced residents trickled slowly back home from the U.S. Embassy, bundled belongings on heads.

Liberia's main northern-based rebel movement has rolled south to set siege to the capital this week, their strongest move yet to depose Taylor -- a former warlord indicted Wednesday on war crimes by an international tribunal in Sierra Leone for his involvement in a 10-year war there.

In a rare interview, Taylor vowed he would prevail over the insurgents.

"We think that we're going to have it very difficult," Taylor told The AP. But "I think they will be beaten back," he added, seemingly unruffled by his dwindling territory. "This force that came to Monrovia is not greater than God."

Fighting raged even after rebel delegates at a peace conference in Ghana promised Friday to ask their fighters to lay down their arms so talks could proceed, according to Mohammed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the regional bloc mediating the talks.

Chambas said government negotiators also recommitted to the negotiations, which were scheduled to continue Monday.

Late Friday, the State Department ordered the evacuation of all non-emergency personnel from its Monrovia embassy -- where security was tight Saturday.

Crowds of Liberians -- with little food or water -- pressed against the gates of a nearby U.S. diplomatic residential compound, chanting "open the gates, open the gates."

"At least so we can enter the children," pleaded one man, Bobby Jacob, a 23-year-old wallet vendor. "The children are suffering."

Insurgents have in recent days taken control of Monrovia's seven refugee camps, which housed some 115,000 people displaced from their homes by earlier fighting. Nearly the entire west African country -- with an estimated one-third of its 3 million citizens homeless from years of fighting -- is now cut off from international aid.

The already dire humanitarian situation in Monrovia is deteriorating, said a U.N. World Food Program spokesman, Ramin Rafirasme, in Dakar, Senegal.

Monrovia "is a city of over 1 million. If a peaceful solution or a cease-fire isn't found soon, we're talking about a major humanitarian disaster," Rafirasme said.

The Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, insurgency 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 the strongest warlord from the conflict, which killed hundreds of thousands.

As Taylor visited Ghana Wednesday for the opening of the peace talks, 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 civilians during a decade of terror there.

Taylor cut short his visit and returned to Monrovia that day, an international arrest warrant issued in his name. Ghanaian authorities made no apparent attempt to arrest him.

On Saturday, Taylor dismissed the indictment as an effort to undermine him.

"Let's not kid ourselves, it's about politics -- to have me thrown off so the Liberian people could try to turn against me," Taylor said.

Taylor has said 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.

Taylor said Saturday the coup try "would have murdered thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Liberians here. God did not permit it to happen."

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