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Taylor's staff threatens more bloodshed for Liberia

Sunday, August 10, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Days before President Charles Taylor is to step down, his spokesman warned Saturday of bloodshed to follow and said he feared what demoralized government fighters would do. "All hell might just break loose," he declared.

Leaders of a West African peacekeeping force and several U.S. Marines visited the capital's port, which is in rebel hands, for the first time to see if it could be reopened soon to receive humanitarian aid.

The West African force's chief of staff, Theophilus Tawiah of Ghana, said peacekeepers planned to take control of the port "as soon as we are ready," though did not give any specifics.

The threat of further bloodshed came as a weak truce in Liberia's war-divided capital continued to hold, but fighting persisted in the northern town of Gbarnga and the southeastern port city of Buchanan, according to Taylor's defense minister, Daniel Chea.

Western aid agencies and diplomats kept up negotiations Saturday for humanitarian access to Monrovia's rebel-held port, with hunger building on the government-held side.

In rebel-held Monrovia, young boys swept bullet casings from the streets and bodies were removed, after decomposing in the open for days.

The first international United Nations officials returned to Monrovia since withdrawing staff in early June as rebels pressed in on the city, a spokesman said.

An advance team of about 10 people toured the city to inspect their buildings and arrange meetings with peacekeeping officials they hope can lobby rebels for access to supplies at the port, said Ramin Rafirasme, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program.

Under U.S. and West African pressure, Taylor has promised to step down one minute before noon on Monday and head into exile in Nigeria at some unspecified time to follow. The rebels have besieged Monrovia for two months, pressing home their 3-year campaign to drive out Taylor.

On the streets, Taylor's largely unpaid forces say they are ready for peace -- but demand some kind of money for laying down their AK-47s, warning they will use them to rob for a living.

"We are happy for the man to go. All are tired of fighting the war," said James George, an 18-year-old government fighter.

But Taylor spokesman Vaani Passawe said the international community should expect the worst.

"'Our morale has been sapped," Passawe said as the clock ticked on Taylor's regime. "The situation is likely to collapse unless some pressure is put to bear" on rebels.

"Once the president leaves, our boys might be stigmatized," Passawe said. "If that is the case, you must expect chaos. Hell might just break loose."

Chea, the defense minister, echoed the warning, saying, "If Taylor's departure results in collapse, then it means those who blamed him for the violence are wrong."

A West African peacekeeping force due to eventually reach 3,250 strong is building strength at a temporary base at Liberia's main airport, outside Monrovia. But it is still below battalion strength of 770 men.

Rebels have been more temperate in their statements ahead of Taylor's departure, but say they will respond if his forces attack.

Each side has repeatedly broken cease-fires.

The rebels have pledged to turn over the port to peacekeepers when they arrive in adequate numbers. With aid ships headed for Monrovia, the port and its warehouses are crucial to feeding hundreds of thousands of famished civilians on the cut-off government side of Monrovia.

Western diplomats were urging rebels to open an immediate route to the port.

Ahead of a deal, the International Committee of the Red Cross was making a second trip across Monrovia's front lines Saturday, ferrying medical kits and medicine to the rebel side. Civilians there, while having plenty of food, have been blocked from access to the main hospitals on the government side.

Doctors on rebel-held territory have set up a makeshift hospital at a recently abandoned beer factory, treating injured children alongside rebel fighters on a loading dock of the plant.


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