Artillery, mortar sound in Liberia's capital in closest attack by rebels

© The Associated Press

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP)  -- Mortar and artillery boomed across Liberia's capital on Monday as government troops reported themselves battling the closest assault yet by the West African nation's rebels, attacking just 25 kilometers (15 miles) away.

Defense Minister Daniel Chea confirmed Arthington, hometown of President Charles Taylor, came under assault Monday morning, with fighting continuing.

The thunder of artillery and mortar on the hilltop town rolled across nearby Monrovia, causing pandemonium. Merchants locked stores to run home, and frantic parents left homes and offices to search for their children.

"What is this, again? Where can we go, again?" cried one market woman, abandoning her market stall to hide with the rest of Monrovia's people.

The rebels are believed to be the losing side in Liberia's ruinous 1989-96 civil war, which ended with Taylor, the militia leader who launched the war, taking power in 1997 elections.

The rebels, fighters in a shadowy movement calling itself Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, six days ago launched their boldest and most concerted attacks in what had been a three-year campaign of hit-and-run attacks.

International aid workers said it was unclear Monday whether rebels or the government controlled the town of Gbargna, 180 kilometers (110 miles) outside of Monrovia and Taylor's base in the 1990s civil war.

Rebels over the weekend subsequently attacked Klay, 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the north of the capital. Klay had come under attack in February, and until Monday marked the nearest approach of the rebels.

Monrovia's people abandoned the streets Monday morning as fighting roared, save for parents scurrying to find their children.

"Don't you know Monrovia is on fire!" shouted one panicked father. The man pounded on the door of a primary school, locked by an equally frightened principal to keep pupils from fleeing.

Military vehicles patrolled the deserted roads. Many carried blue-jean clad government fighters and bristled with rocket launchers.

Authorities struggled to ease tension. A police car rolled through the main streets, blaring through a loudspeaker "All is calm! All is calm!"

Chea, the defense minister, at one point himself ran out on the streets to order troops to turn off the flashing lights on their vehicles, saying it was adding to the panic.

Liberia, founded by freed U.S. slaves in the 19th century, remains blighted by the 1990s civil war, with little running water, electricity of other services for the people.

Taylor's government remains under longstanding U.N. sanctions, including an arms embargo, for what the United Nations says is his ongoing support for rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

AP-NY-Wed May 13, 2002

© Robert W. Kranz  09-02-2002