Liberia reports up to 300 civilians killed in fighting

Friday, June 27, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Angry crowds laid the bloody, maimed bodies of children in front of Liberia's heavily guarded U.S. Embassy on Thursday, shouting blame at U.S. Marines and America for failing to protect Monrovia's people from fighting overrunning the capital.

President Bush joined international leaders calling for Liberia's president, indicted war crimes suspect Charles Taylor, to cede power as promised in a shattered June 17 cease-fire "so that his country can be spared further bloodshed."

Bush gave no hint he intended to offer U.S. military assistance, as some outsiders have urged for Liberia, a nation founded by freed 19th-century American slaves that sees itself as having special ties to the United States.

A fresh rocket attack Thursday in the center of the refugee-crowded capital killed a street-corner moneychanger and struck new panic in the city. Three days of rocket and mortar fire have killed at least 200 civilians and left moaning, bleeding wounded overflowing onto the dirt grounds of Monrovia's main hospital.

Still unable to advance past Monrovia's strategic port into the heart of the city, Liberia's rebels pledged Thursday to keep fighting until the capital was theirs and Taylor gone.

"Our forces are still in Monrovia, and Taylor is trying to run," rebel defense official Joe Wylie told The Associated Press in Dakar, Senegal.

"Our plan is to take the whole country," he said, a task that "could be days."

In Ghana, West Africa's mediators set a 10 a.m. Friday deadline for all sides to restore their cease-fire, or see Liberia's internationally brokered peace talks formally end.

Rebels have fought a three-year battle to oust Taylor, a Boston-educated, Libyan-trained ex-warlord who has made an array of enemies in 14 years of fueling West Africa's conflicts.

Taylor is accused in long-standing U.N. sanctions of gun- and diamond-running with West African rebel movements. A U.N.-backed indictment disclosed June 4 accused Taylor of crimes against humanity in his backing of rebels in Sierra Leone, who killed tens of thousands and maimed thousands more with machetes in a 10-year campaign to win that country's diamond fields.

Liberia's rebels have made their first pushes into the capital this month. Each drive has been push-and-shove, with Taylor's forces so far succeeding each time in driving the AK-47-toting rebels back.

However, fighting already has realized the worst fears for the city of 1 million, now crowded with hundreds of thousands of refugees: rebels lobbing rocket barrages into neighborhoods filled with terrified civilians, and Taylor's forces looting stores and robbing those fleeing the carnage.

On Thursday, bitter families placed the bodies of seven of the dead -- four children, two women and a man -- in front of the U.S. Embassy, beneath the eyes and guns of Marines standing sentinel behind sandbag bunkers on the roof. The bodies, contorted and some missing limbs, were piled in a heap.

Witnesses said searchers pulled 18 corpses from an evacuated U.S. diplomatic residential compound. It had been filled with thousands of desperate Liberian families, seeking sanctuary, when at least three rockets slammed into the crowd Wednesday.

Wounded overwhelmed Monrovia's John F. Kennedy hospital.

Medical workers placed 400 wounded from Wednesday's shelling on floors and hallways, then laid Thursday's bloody newcomers out in the hospital's yard.

Health Minister Peter Coleman said fighting Tuesday and Wednesday had killed 200 to 300 civilians and wounded 1,000.

"Come to work -- our people are dying, they need you," the health minister said, appealing over the radio for frightened doctors and nurses to report to duty.

Morgue workers reported mortuaries filled with "hundreds" of dead. Soldiers commandeered vehicles from civilians to cart the dead off shrapnel-strewn streets.

Defense Minister Daniel Chea, touring the devastated city, claimed government forces had pushed rebels back to the northwest edge.

In neighboring Sierra Leone, U.N. helicopters and crews were on standby, ready to fly to Monrovia on "very short notice" to evacuate international workers, U.N. spokesman Patrick Coker said.

While the June 17 cease-fire was the first in Liberia's current 3-year-old rebellion, Taylor and his rivals repeatedly made and broke pacts in the 1989-96 civil war that saw Monrovia overrun time and again by fighting, killing tens of thousands.

Rebels include ex-combatants from that civil war. Neighboring Guinea is alleged to be backing the older, eastern-based rebel group, in a bid to protect its own borders from armed incursions by Taylor's fighters.

A second rebel movement, better-disciplined and better-armed, emerged in the east this year.

That band allegedly is backed by neighboring Ivory Coast, angry at the entry of notoriously vicious Liberian fighters into Ivory Coast's own 10-month-old civil war, now brought to a cease-fire with the aid of troops of colonial ruler, France.

Taylor was elected Liberia's president in 1997, in part out of fears he would renew fighting if he lost. A declaration by Taylor at the June 4 open of the peace talks, and again in the cease-fire signed by his government, were seen as committing Taylor to yielding power in the interest of peace.

Fighting broke out again over the weekend, after Taylor said his "large following" would not allow him to yield power so easily. Taylor said he would stay through the January end of his term, and even then accept only his vice president as successor.

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