Liberia extends state of emergency amid what government says is heavy fighting

© The Associated Press

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP)  -- Liberia extended a state of emergency Saturday as the military reported continued heavy fighting in its war against rebels in the country's interior.

Parliament extended the state of emergency by six months, 1 1/2 months after it was initially declared by President Charles Taylor.

"The war situation for which the condition (state of emergency) was imposed has not diminished," Information Minister Reginald Goodridge said. "Instead ... rebels have stepped up their attacks on major towns across the country."

The state of emergency authorizes government forces to search and enter homes, among other authorized powers.

Defense Minister Daniel Chea said government forces and rebels still were fighting Saturday in the central town of Gbarnga. The government said the rebels attacked the town at dawn Thursday.

Chea also reported fighting on the highway north of the town, 180 kilometers (110 miles) from the capital, Monrovia. He said there had been injuries among government forces but no fatalities.

Chea called the rebels well-equipped, saying they launched over 100 rockets in Gbarnga on the first day of their attack.

Losing factions in Liberia's 1989-96 civil war are blamed for a three-year campaign of hit-and-run attacks in the countryside - typically, blitzes that send civilians fleeing by the hundreds or thousands before government forces retake a town.

A movement calling itself Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy has been increasingly active this year with what the government says are ever-closer strikes to the capital.

This week, tens of thousands fled as the government battled what it said was an attack by rebels on Gbarnga, one of the bases from which Taylor led the rebel side in the civil war.

Taylor and his government have repeatedly complained that a U.N. arms embargo has crippled Liberia's ability to combat the rebels.

The U.N. Security Council on Monday unanimously voted to extend the embargo for another year because of what it said was ongoing Liberian support for brutal rebel movements in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

The government generally has limited access to the hardest-hit areas of fighting, making independent assessment of the conflict difficult.

The Associated Press visited Gbarnga on Wednesday, as an attack was said to be nearing, and saw thousands of civilians fleeing. Some bore gunshot wounds from what authorities said was cross fire.

Chea said most of the more than 60,000 civilians displaced by the latest fighting have reached the towns of Totota and Batala by foot.

There were unconfirmed reports late Saturday that rebels had attacked Tubmanburg, a town just 60 kilometers (35 miles) northwest of the capital. Soldiers of the highly armed anti-terrorist unit set out to investigate.

After leading the 1989-96 rebellion, Taylor was elected president in the first post-conflict vote a year later. He has banned public gatherings and political activity ahead of scheduled 2003 presidential elections, calling the clampdown a necessary security measure against the rebels.

AP-NY-Wed. May 11, 2002

© Robert W. Kranz  09-02-2002