Liberians flee before rebel push

© BBC International

Food and water are said to be getting scarce Increasing numbers of people are fleeing the Liberian rebel advance on the capital Monrovia, where up to 100,000 are now estimated to be living rough.

Four days after the rebel push began, streets in the government-held area of the city are crowded with nervous, scared people looking for shelter, says the BBC's Paul Welsh in Monrovia.

The head of the UN refugee agency, Ruud Lubbers, has urged the UN to send a peacekeeping force to Liberia.

He said the international community could not escape its responsibility to help bring about a ceasefire.

The capital was reported to be comparatively calm despite some firing early on Tuesday, after days of intense fighting as rebels seek to topple President Charles Taylor.

Dwindling food and water

Aid officials said that in the face of the rebel advance, more than 60,000 refugees had headed into Monrovia from camps where they fled from fighting in other parts of the country during the three years of war between the government and rebels of Lurd - Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

Our correspondent says he found up to 15,000 people gathered at the sports stadium, looking for food, water and shelter.

They have been given little help, and small outbreaks of cholera and measles have already been reported.

The government has asked for more international aid after distributing its dwindling stocks of rice.

"We are appealing to the international community to send supplies. We can hold on for a few more days but things are deteriorating," said Health Minister Peter Coleman.

In the diplomatic quarter - from where more than 500 foreigners were evacuated by helicopter on Monday - people cleared shops of basics like bread, milk and sugar, while those with no money to buy just stood and watched.

"If we go on like this for more than two weeks, the suffering will become untold," James Kollie told the Associated Press news agency.

"Our actual plight seems to be unheard of outside of Liberia."

A spokeswoman for the UN World Food Programme, Christiane Berthiaume, told journalists in Geneva: "It's total anarchy, it's not a war like any other."

International obligations

In a BBC interview, the head of the UN refugee agency, Ruud Lubbers, said the situation was dire because of the numbers of displaced people.

"It is pretty clear that there is an urgent need for an international peacekeeping force, because I think it's too optimistic to ask for a ceasefire that holds if there is not a peacekeeping force on the ground. "

Charles Taylor He added that the international community could not escape its responsibility to help achieve a ceasefire.

The United Nations Security Council has expressed deep concern, and called on all sides to cease hostilities as rebels close in on the centre of Monrovia.

The Lurd offensive has cut off land escape routes from the city.

Most of the fighting has been taking place in suburbs around the Saint Paul's River Bridge, which links the capital with the rebel-held town of Tubmanburg.

A further evacuation of foreign nationals from Liberia is to take place and Ghana has announced it is sending a warship and several aircraft to remove its citizens.

Tuesday, 10 June, 2003, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK

added by: Robert W. Kranz  10-06-2003