Taylor claims victory in latest battle for capital, city buries

Saturday, June 28, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- President Charles Taylor's jubilant forces claimed to have driven rebels out of Liberia's ruined capital Friday after a four-day artillery battle that killed hundreds, and left trapped families burying their dead on the city's Atlantic Ocean beaches.

The rebels "are having it rough," Taylor declared, after a victory tour of his capital, where refugee families roamed without shelter and rising smoke marked rebels' fiery retreat.

Rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire at midmorning Friday, but rocket barrages, shelling and arms fire intensified until government forces managed to drive insurgents out of the port hours later.

Taylor, a warlord who has broken dozens of peace accords in 14 years of warmaking that has killed hundreds of thousands, offered a mildly toned appeal to the United States.

"We ask the international community most specifically the United States to do everything within its power to help Liberia and Liberians out of this mess," Taylor said in a radio address.

President Bush on Thursday said Taylor had to leave the scene. "President Taylor needs to step down," Bush said, "so that his country can be spared further bloodshed."

After his tour of the city late Friday, Taylor said: "This is a very sad period for our country. I yearn for peace and will do everything for peace."

The port, with its food warehouses, and the nearby city brewery had been among the focal points of combat as Liberia's rebels tried to push their way into Monrovia, driving home their three-year war to force out Taylor.

"We are fighting to liberate Doala in general, the beer factory in particular," one government soldier said during the morning's fighting, rushing to battle in a northwest district in a pickup truck with an AK-47 in his hand.

For the second time this month, Taylor's forces managed to hold back insurgents at the port, and eventually force them back across the St. Paul's river bridge that marks the western boundary to the city.

Under the onslaught, residents estimated at least 500 civilians in the port area alone. Picking up their dead Friday and searching for shelter, Monrovia's bitter people waited only for the next round of fighting.

"It's too early for me to believe what I'm hearing," said one woman, walking away from the port with her family's rolled-up foam mattress balanced on her head. "Even if the rebels have been kicked out of the port, how long will it take before we run again?"

"Whether or not the port has been recaptured is not important," said another woman, 45-year-old Minnie Suoh. "What we want is peace, so we can go back home."

Taylor's forces rushed past, waving fists in the air in victory.

Mortuaries had filled as Monrovia's death toll climbed, leaving civilians to hastily bury the dead -- family members, and strangers found on the streets -- on the city's Atlantic Ocean beaches during the fight, at times with rockets slamming into the sand around them.

Thousands demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy on Friday, urging the United States to use its might to stop the conflict in Liberia -- a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century, and one that still sees itself as America's offshoot in Africa.

"George Bush we are dying," said the message on one sign in the crowd, members of which had laid the bodies of victims of the rocket barrages out before the embassy on Thursday.

"We need you now, America," another sign said.

Health workers tried to deal with growing hunger and disease in the wake of the fighting. With the city's food stocks tied up in the embattled port, rice, flour and other staples had tripled in price -- if they could be found at all.

Cholera spread in the city of 1 million, swelled by hundreds of thousands of more refugees living in school yards, the national soccer stadium and the city's once-grand Masonic temple.

In Ghana, West African mediators suspended Liberia's month-old peace talks for a week, saying conditions on the ground had made them impossible.

Fighting surged over the weekend after Taylor announced he would stay in power at least through the January end of his term, in what was seen as a reneging of pledges during the peace talks to cede power in the interest of peace.

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