Westerners flee Liberian capital

U.N. spokesman warns of 'major humanitarian disaster'
© BBC International

Government forces are still fighting back Military helicopters have started to evacuate Europeans and United States citizens from the Liberian capital, which is surrounded by rebel forces.

Heavily armed French troops emerged from the helicopters as they landed at the European Union compound in Monrovia, before taking westerners to a French ship waiting off the coast.

Peace talks between the government and rebels in neighbouring Ghana have been postponed until Wednesday, reports the French news agency, AFP.

Fighters of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd) on Sunday gave President Charles Taylor an ultimatum to resign within 72 hours or face renewed attacks.

They appeared to halt their advance on Sunday less than six kilometres (four miles) from the city centre although gunfire was again heard on Monday.

'Avoid bloodshed'

Some 91 foreigners, including aid workers and Lebanese traders, were evacuated, said David Parker, acting head of the EU mission in Liberia.

The helicopters then started to airlift about 100 US citizens, who had gathered overnight at their embassy, next door to the EU compound. AFP reports that people queued patiently before boarding the helicopters in groups of 15.

"We can't work, and we had to leave," said Isabelle deBourning, of Medecins sans Frontieres, running for the helicopter.

"We've been allowed five kilos of baggage each. We have to leave the rest behind," said another unnamed expatriate.

They are being taken to the French military ship "Orage", which will take them to neighbouring Ivory Coast.

"Lurd strongly instructs Charles Taylor to step down from the Liberian presidency within the next 72 hours to avoid bloodshed in Monrovia," the rebels said on Sunday.

Last week, Mr Taylor was indicted for war crimes by a United Nations-backed court in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Guinea, which Mr Taylor accuses of backing Lurd, has welcomed his indictment.

Having advanced as far as the sprawling city's port area on Saturday, the rebels later reportedly pulled back several kilometres north before issuing their ultimatum.

The government, however, said its troops had forced the Lurd back but refugees said on Sunday the rebels had managed to make a new gain, reaching the strategic Saint Paul river bridge under heavy fire.

Refugee crisis

There have been no reliable reports of casualties from the fighting but one aid worker from British charity Merlin, Magnus Wolfe-Murray, said that the capital of this nation of some three million people was flooded with refugees.

Refugees are packed into a concrete football stadium

"Conditions are dreadful," he said. "There are anything between 300,000 and 700,000 people in Monrovia without anywhere to stay." The offensive by the Lurd and another rebel faction known as Model has cut off land escape routes from the city, forcing refugees to seek what shelter they can find in Monrovia under the pouring rain.

One giant stadium in the centre is said to be packed with refugees.

But Mr Taylor cut short his presence in Ghana when an international arrest warrant was issued following his indictment for allegedly helping Sierra Leone rebels.

Monday, 9 June, 2003, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK

added by: Robert W. Kranz  09-06-2003