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Fighting presses Liberian capital

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia - Thousands of terrified Liberians fled the battle zone through pounding rain and rising floodwaters Friday as President Charles Taylor's forces fought to hold the capital against advancing rebels.

Residents streamed out of the Monrovia suburb of Virginia, on the Atlantic Ocean coast, which was rocked throughout the day by gunfire and explosions. Refugees deserted camps around the capital already taken by the rebels, fearful of what the insurgents might bring.

"I have never seen good rebels," said James Siryon Cooper, rain streaming down his face as he clutched the hand of his 3-year-old son. "Rebels are rebels."

Liberia's main rebel movement recently has swept south toward the capital, Monrovia, pressing to take the city and drive out Taylor, who was indicted this week on war crimes charges by an international tribunal in Sierra Leone for his involvement in a 10-year war there.

All seven camps ringing the capital - housing some 115,000 displaced people - are now under the control of insurgents, sparking a mass exodus, World Food Program spokesman Ramin Rafirasme said in Dakar, Senegal.

"People are fleeing in all directions. Loads of people. Thousands or tens of thousands. We can't quantify them," Rafirasme said. "The situation remains highly volatile."

Fighting raged even as West African mediators said they had secured a promise from rebel delegates in Ghana to lay down their arms so peace talks could proceed.

"They have agreed to our concerns ... not to let the humanitarian situation get out of hand and they have promised to ask their colleagues back in Liberia to cease fire," said Mohammed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the regional bloc mediating the talks.

The government delegation also recommitted itself to the negotiations, he said.

Talks were scheduled to continue Monday.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called for ending the fighting, establishing a new transitional government and holding elections.

The United States, he said, "remains committed to the ongoing reconciliation and cease-fire talks. We expect no less of a commitment from the government and the rebels."

About 600 rebels attacked Virginia at dawn Friday, said Defense Minister Daniel Chea, wearing military fatigues and a bulletproof vest. At least five government soldiers and about 20 rebels were killed, Chea told reporters before jumping into a vehicle headed to the front.

Those figures could not be verified independently. At least two bloodied government fighters were seen being loaded onto the backs of trucks and driven from the front.

The rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy has battled since 1999 to oust Taylor, who was elected president in 1997, a year after a devastating seven-year civil war ended.

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