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New Battles Add to Plight of Liberians

Relief groups seek passage for aid supplies as fighting rages in cities outside the capital. The U.S. presses a rebel group to leave a key city.

August 09, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — Relief organizations urged rebels on Friday to allow supplies to flow to thousands of famished people in government-held parts of Monrovia. Fighting in cities outside the Liberian capital heightened concerns about the plight of civilians caught in the crossfire.

Battles raged to the south in the nation's second-largest city, Buchanan, and north in Gbarnga, according to rebel leaders, government officials and witnesses. The number of casualties was unclear.

The new fighting came a day after beleaguered President Charles Taylor officially tendered his resignation, effective Monday, to the Liberian Congress and named a successor. West African peacekeepers on Thursday also made their first move into Monrovia from a base at the airport about 30 miles away.

Aid workers said that despite relative calm in the capital, security across most of this West African nation, settled in the 19th century by freed American slaves, was still tenuous.

"The situation is still very, very volatile," said Dominique Liengme, who heads the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Liberia. "We still have to be very careful."

Leaders of one rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, or MODEL, reported fighting around Buchanan, which is about a three-hour drive south of Monrovia.

Speaking with reporters by phone from Abidjan, the main city in neighboring Ivory Coast, rebel group Chairman Thomas Nimley said that his forces had repulsed an attack by government troops Wednesday and were still in control of the town.

Liberia's defense minister, Daniel Chea, said the rebels should be pressured to leave Buchanan. If they don't, government forces will continue to attack, he said.

The rebels "must understand that the government has no other choice but to attack them and remove them," he said. "What we want them to do is pull back their forces."

Nimley said that the U.S. ambassador in Monrovia had requested that his forces withdraw from Buchanan and pull farther back from the capital, but they were reluctant to do so because they were "making progress."

A U.S. Embassy official confirmed that the Americans were pressuring the rebel group to withdraw from Buchanan and to respect the rights of people living in territory it controls.

The rebel group, which emerged this year, has gained ground in several of Liberia's southeastern timber-producing areas. The group captured Buchanan in late July.

Like fellow insurgents with Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, their main objective is to oust Taylor. LURD forces advanced nearly to the center of Monrovia in eight weeks of fighting, and it still controls the capital's port.

Taylor has refused to say when he will leave Liberia for exile in Nigeria. However, he has said that the presence of enough peacekeepers on the ground as well as the nullification of a U.N.-backed war crimes indictment against him are preconditions for his departure.

Aid workers expressed concern about the conditions endured by civilians in cities that have been cut off by fighting.

"We are imagining the worst, that things are grim," said Karen Goodman-Jones, acting country manager for the Merlin international aid group. The organization has had to shelve plans to help rehabilitate Buchanan's only hospital.

At least 8,000 people have fled to the grounds of a Catholic mission, where five expatriate nuns and brothers are grappling with the influx, religious groups said.

"The sisters say the streets are full of bodies," said Sister Barbara Brillant, a nun in Monrovia who has been in contact with the Buchanan mission. "They have no food. They have no water. And they have no fuel, for sure."

"We need access," Goodman-Jones said. "It's as simple as that."

Liengme, the Red Cross official, said her group would try to negotiate safe passage to Buchanan next week to assess needs there.

Thousands fled to Monrovia when rebels stormed the city. Victoria Mason left with only the clothes on her back. She was returning home from work when the battle flared, and she was forced to leave her young cousin behind. "Even now, I don't know where he is," said Mason, 26. "I'm so worried."

In Monrovia, the Red Cross and the relief group Doctors Without Borders ventured into LURD-held territory on Friday for the first time in recent weeks, bringing medicine and bandages to as many as 70 patients at an overcrowded brewery-turned-clinic, Liengme said.

But government fighters would not permit the severely wounded to be brought to Monrovia's main hospital.

U.S. Embassy officials also entered the rebel stronghold in the capital to retrieve two American girls who were trapped with family members.

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