U.S. complex in Liberia hit by shells

Thursday, June 26, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Shells and rockets pounded refugee-crowded neighborhoods of Liberia's capital Wednesday as rebels pressed home their three-year war to oust President Charles Taylor, wounding hundreds and leaving thousands of others cowering in the coastal city without escape.

The fighting shattered a week-old truce and raised the possibility of the deadliest of endgames for Liberia's civil war: an all-out battle among undisciplined armies for the city of 1 million residents, now also packed with hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Taylor pledged to live or die with his troops, with rebels on three sides of the city and the Atlantic surf pounding the other.

The U.S. Embassy opened the gates of its residential compound to Liberians seeking shelter, and thousands of them crowded in Wednesday -- hoping proximity to the Americans would mean safety.

Hours later, three pieces of ordnance -- believed either mortars or rockets -- landed within the high-walled compound and exploded, sending those taking refuge there running. Survivors rushed out bleeding victims, some missing limbs -- using a wheelbarrow and bloodstained shirts as stretchers.

In Washington, State Department press officer Brooke Summers said there was no indication any U.S. citizens were killed. She said a guard and a gardner employed by the U.S. embassy were killed. The last Americans had recently been moved out of the residential complex to the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy across the street.

"Everybody in the world is sitting to watch us die," a refugee, Suah Kolli, cried at Monrovia's John F. Kennedy hospital, where 200 wounded brought in by midday overflowed the hospital's wards and lay sprawled, moaning and bleeding, in slippery hallways.

The French humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontiers evacuated another hospital overrun by fighting, and by midday was treating scores of wounded in its own compound.

Refugees packed schoolyards, shell-gutted houses and the country's lead soccer stadium, while many of Monrovia's people simply cowered in their homes. Aid workers described a humanitarian nightmare even before fighting broke Tuesday, with cholera and starvation rampant among the crowded refugees.

Taylor's forces have lost at least 60 percent of the country to two rebel groups -- each determined to drive out the president, a U.N.-indicted war-crimes suspect accused of roiling West Africa's conflicts for 14 years.

At midday, Taylor took to the airwaves of his private radio station to dispel a rumor he had fled.

"This blatant act of terror will be fought all the way," Taylor declared, as artillery boomed.

"My life is no more important than yours," he said. "I am here with the men and women in arms, encouraging them to fight on. Because my survival is their survival, and their survival is mine."

Fighting much of the day appeared concentrated at the city's port, on the west side. Defense Minister Daniel Chea said by afternoon the front was within the city and just three miles from the heart of Monrovia.

"We will close them off," Chea said, saying he expected "significant progress" in a day or two.

Rebels breached the city Tuesday, and before dawn Wednesday were waging their fiercest-ever battle for control.

Liberia's June 17 truce -- the first of the country's rebellion -- never fully took hold. It shattered over the weekend after Taylor announced he would not yield power, reneging on pledges during peace talks this month.

The U.S. Embassy, in a statement Wednesday, condemned what it called the rebels' "serious violation of the cease-fire, which has caused unwarranted terror and misery."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Nigerian Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, lead mediator for the Liberia talks, likewise condemned the fighting and urged all sides to honor their accord.

In Ghana, site of the peace talks, rebels insisted they were battling only to "stabilize the situation" so that peace talks could continue.

Asked if that would include taking Monrovia, rebel envoy Kabineh Ja'Neh added, "That is left to the judgment of our forces on the ground -- if that is what they'll need to do to stabilize the situation."

As fighting raged, the U.S. Embassy said it would further reduce its staff, but remain open. French military helicopters and a French warship had already evacuated about 500 foreigners earlier this month.

At the United Nations, the British ambassador said the United States was the "natural candidate" to intervene and enforce a cease-fire.

"The United States ... is the nation that everybody would think would be the natural candidate for such an operation," ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said. "I understand that there is some discussion going on in Washington of the pros and cons of taking such action."

Liberia, a nation founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves, for decades was sub-Saharan Africa's richest country, profiting off timber, rubber and close business ties to the United States.

A 1980 rebellion overthrew the American-Liberian elite of returned slaves that had ruled Liberia since its founding.

Taylor, a Boston-educated business student trained in the guerrilla camps of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, launched the country into war at the head of a small armed force in 1989.

The seven-year civil war that followed killed up to 200,000 and left the country in lasting ruin.

Taylor emerged from the conflict as the strongest warlord, and won presidential elections the following year.

Taylor is under U.N. sanctions for alleged gun- and diamond-trafficking in the region, and a U.N.-backed court announced Taylor's war crimes indictment June 4 for alleged backing of rebels behind a 10-year terror campaign in neighboring Sierra Leone.

In Freetown, the U.N.-allied court's prosecutor pledged Wednesday that the court would bring Taylor to trial -- but called on the international community to make it happen.

"We are going to get Charles Taylor, I assure you," prosecutor David Crane, an American, said.

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