Liberians demand U.N. protection as looting, rapes follow

Friday, October 3, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Terrorized civilians demanded Thursday that Liberia's new U.N. force protect them from systematic looting and rapes occurring in the aftermath of a deadly firefight in the capital between rebels and the government.

Officials with the U.N. mission, which took over peacekeeping responsibilities Wednesday from the 3,500-strong West African force, declined immediate comment on the unrest.

A night of gunfire and attacks on civilians followed the clash in Monrovia, the most serious battle there since West African soldiers entered the capital in early August to enforce a cease-fire.

"I thought my days on Earth had come to an end," a nurse said after hours of heavy gunfire and house-to-house looting in eastern Monrovia.

Residents blamed government-allied militias for the overnight rampages.

"We did not sleep," said the nurse, who refused to be identified out of fear. "The shooting was everywhere."

In the western suburbs, panicked refugees fled from the Jah Tonda camp after what they said was a night of rebel attacks.

Camp residents said insurgents entered the camp late Wednesday night, robbing refugees and raping women and girls.

The victims included a woman in her 60s, who wept as she fled the camp barefoot. Gunmen raped her and then took her savings, the woman said.

Refugees streamed toward a U.N. checkpoint and demanded protection.

"We had a sleepless night last night," said Stephen Manley, a refugee camp leader. "The armed men terrified us to the extent that we didn't know what to do."

The United Nations has committed up to 15,000 troops to secure peace in Liberia, where the Aug. 11 departure of warlord-president Charles Taylor cleared the way for an Aug. 18 peace deal between the government and rebels.

Rebels waged a three-year campaign to oust Taylor, who launched the once-prosperous nation into conflict with a 1989 insurgency. He fled in exile to Nigeria.

The West African soldiers brought calm to Monrovia, quelling bloodletting after nearly three months of deadly rebel sieges there.

Peacekeepers said they did not have enough troops to stop the clash that broke out Wednesday after rebel leader Sekou Conneh entered the city for the first time to meet new President Moses Blah. Conneh's motorcade was stoned before people started shooting and throwing grenades. Five people died, Defense Minister Daniel Chea said.

The United States deployed more than 200 soldiers in August to back up the West African force. The last U.S. ground forces flew out Tuesday.

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