Rebels in Liberia make key advances

By: Jacques l´Huillery
© Agence France Press (AFP)

ABIDJAN, May 12 (AFP)  -- Rebels in Liberia seized the key provincial city of Gbarnga on Sunday after days of fierce fighting, diplomats said, although the government denied the town had fallen.

Gbarnga, a stronghold of President Charles Taylor during the seven-year civil war, was seized after intense battles between government and rebel forces from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development (LURD), the diplomats said.

The unrest has triggered a major humanitarian crisis in the area, with tens of thousands of people fleeing.

"This is a highly significant development. As well as being of strategic importance, Gbarnga was Taylor's 'capital' during the civil war from 1990 to 1997. It's astonishing that it has fallen," a diplomat in Liberia, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

But a source close to the president told AFP that government forces were incontrol of Gbarnga, that lies about 170 kilometres (105 miles) northeast of the capital, and that the rebels had been taken prisoner.

There was no independent confirmation of this information.

Rebels and government troops were also locked in combat in Klay, a strategic town about 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Monrovia, military and diplomatic sources said, moving the battles dangerously closer to the capital.

Gbarnga city, and in particular its main hospital, have been looted, reliable sources told AFP. The diplomats said the looting was the work of government forces.

A spokesman for the UN World Food Programme told AFP that UN and other relief organization staff had left the town, where almost 25,000 people displaced by the conflict in Liberia have been housed.

Rami Rafirasme said the new fighting in Gbarnga could mean another 40,000 to 50,000 people could soon be on the move, further exacerbating a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions.
The LURD attack on Klay is the second in four months. The rebels first entered the town in early February, when they began advancing on Monrovia, leading Taylor to declare a state of emergency in the diamond-rich country.

Government forces stationed at the Po river outside Monrovia told reporters wishing to venture beyond the river towards Klay that only combat troops were allowed beyond that point.

The rebels launched an insurrection in northern Liberia in 1998 from bases in Guinea.

Witnesses told AFP the rebels appeared to be changing tactics, seeking to occupy Gbarnga rather than staging hit and run attacks as in the past.

Taylor had publicly announced on Thursday that troops and rebels were fighting for control of the town.

"Those that have been telling the world that there is no war in Liberia will now see that this democratically elected government is under attack, and that powerful nations of the world continue to deny Liberia the right under Article 51 of the UN Charter to defend herself," Taylor said in a statement.

A driver with British charity Save the Children said tens of thousands of displaced people had trekked southwards as the fighting for control of Gbarnga intensified.

United Nations and government officials also reported fighting on Friday between the LURD and government troops outside Tubmanburg in the northwest of the country.

A government source said on Saturday that troops had discovered rebel hideouts and were advancing in an attempt to destroy them.

The UN Security Council voted unanimously last Monday to renew an arms embargo on Liberia.

The sanctions were imposed a year ago to oblige Taylor's government to curb support for the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone.

The Taylor government says the arms embargo is emboldening the LURD movement.

AFP-Tue. May 12, 2002

© Robert W. Kranz  09-02-2002