Liberian troops battle rebels outside capital

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

Refugees stream past the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia on Saturday. Thousands are taking shelter near the embassy as rebels approach the outskirts of the capital. MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) -- Explosions and machine gun fire echoed in Liberia's besieged capital Saturday as President Charles Taylor's forces fought rebels pressing on the outskirts, sending tens of thousands of desperate residents to the U.S. Embassy seeking sanctuary.

"This city is not for the taking," a defiant Taylor said in an interview with The Associated Press as he calmly directed Monrovia's defense.

Artillery and machine gun fire in western suburbs drove residents from their homes early Saturday, raising the specter of street fighting in the capital's crowded center and prompting civilians to throng the gates of the U.S. Embassy.

Bearing foam mattresses and other hastily gathered belongings, the masses huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in the rain on a muddy, rocky hill outside the embassy compound, asking for help from America -- from where freed slaves sailed in the 19th century to found the now-war-ruined country.

"Send the Marines to guard us," cried Spencer Suku, a student. "The place we are in now, only God can save us."

Liberia's main northern-based rebel movement has rolled south to besiege the capital this week, their strongest move yet to depose Taylor -- a former warlord indicted Wednesday on war crimes charges by an international tribunal in Sierra Leone for his involvement in a 10-year war there.

Taylor: Rebels 'not greater than God'

Liberian President Charles Taylor speaks to reporters Saturday in Monrovia.

In a rare interview, Taylor vowed he would prevail over the insurgents.

"We think that we're going to have it very difficult," Taylor told The AP. But "I think they will be beaten back," he added, seemingly unruffled by his dwindling territory. "This force that came to Monrovia is not greater than God."

Late Friday, the State Department ordered the evacuation of all nonemergency personnel from its Monrovia embassy -- where security was tight on Saturday.

Crowds of Liberians -- with little food or water -- pressed against the gates of a nearby U.S. diplomatic residential compound, chanting "open the gates, open the gates."

"At least so we can enter the children," pleaded one man, Bobby Jacob, a 23-year-old wallet vendor. "The children are suffering."

Fighting raged even after rebel delegates at a peace conference in Ghana promised Friday to ask their fighters to lay down their arms so talks could proceed, according to Mohammed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the regional bloc mediating the talks.

Chambas said government negotiators also recommitted to the negotiations, which were scheduled to continue Monday.

Insurgents have in recent days taken control of Monrovia's seven refugee camps, which housed about 115,000 people displaced from their homes in previous fighting. Nearly the entire west African country -- where an estimated one third of 3 million citizens are homeless after years of fighting -- has been cut off from international aid.

The already dire humanitarian situation in Monrovia is deteriorating, said U.N. World Food Program spokesman Ramin Rafirasme from Dakar, Senegal.

Monrovia "is a city of over 1 million. If a peaceful solution or a cease-fire isn't found soon, we're talking about a major humanitarian disaster," Rafirasme said.

Four-year insurgency

The Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, insurgency has battled since 1999 to oust Taylor, who was elected president in 1997, a year after a devastating seven-year civil war ended.

Taylor sparked Liberia's war in 1989 with a failed coup attempt and emerged the strongest warlord from the conflict, in which hundreds of thousands were killed.

As Taylor visited Ghana on Wednesday for the opening of peace talks, the joint U.N.-Sierra Leone court unveiled its indictment accusing him of trafficking guns and diamonds with Sierra Leonean rebels, who killed, raped, kidnapped and maimed tens of thousands of civilians during a decade of terror there.

Taylor cut short his visit and returned to Monrovia that day, an international arrest warrant issued in his name. Ghanaian authorities made no apparent attempt to arrest him.

On Saturday, Taylor dismissed the indictment as an effort to undermine him.

"Let's not kid ourselves, it's about politics -- to have me thrown off so the Liberian people could try to turn against me," Taylor said.

Taylor has said there had been a coup attempt, supported by unidentified embassies, while he visited Ghana. Vice President Moses Blah and two of his bodyguards were detained in the attempt.

Taylor said Saturday that the coup try "would have murdered thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Liberians here. God did not permit it to happen."

Saturday, June 7, 2003 Posted: 2118 GMT ( 5:18 AM HKT)

added by: Robert W. Kranz  09-06-2003