Fighting in Liberia nears capital once more.

By: Alphonso Toweh For: Reuters English News Service
© Reuters Ltd. 2002

MONROVIA, May 12 (Reuters) - Rebels seeking to oust Liberian President Charles Taylor have attacked a town just 35 km (22 miles) from the capital Monrovia, both sides said on Sunday.

Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels said they had attacked Kley and were also poised to strike at the international airport east of the capital.

"Yes, our executive marine in the Tubmanburg area has taken over Kley. We attacked Kley yesterday from the Suehn district," LURD spokesman William Hanson told Reuters on Sunday.

Defence Minister Daniel Chea confirmed the attack: "There are some skirmishes at present going on in Kley. Late yesterday evening our men came under serious attack."

In a statement issued later, the rebels said they had taken control of the town and were advancing towards the capital.

"We are capable of overrunning Monrovia but our defence staff are analysing possible means to get Taylor while reducing civilian casualties in Monrovia," the rebels said.

There have been sporadic clashes between rebel groups operating from bases in Guinea and forces loyal to Taylor for nearly two years - the latest episode in a cycle of war in the diamond-rich triangle of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The rebels appeared to intensify their campaign to topple Taylor, a former warlord who started a seven-year civil war in 1989, in February. This is the third time they have come within striking distance of the capital.

The latest bout of fighting flared at the start of May near Taylor's old stronghold of Gbarnga in central Liberia.

LURD said on Sunday they were in control of the town, on the trunk road that links Liberia with neighbouring Ivory Coast and Guinea, and were planning to attack a base in nearby Gbatala.

Chea said serious fighting was going on in Gbarnga but that Liberian forces had a "firm grip" on the town.

Humanitarian agencies warned of a refugee crisis saying civilians had already evacuated Gbarnga.

"If the situation is as serious as it looks, we may have 40,000 to 50,000 displaced people and we are very concerned. We have no access to them," said Ramin Rafirasme, regional spokesman of the U.N. World Food Programme.

TURNING BACK TRAFFIC

Soldiers were turning back traffic on Sunday at the Po River crossing, some 15 km (10 miles) from Monrovia on the road to Kley junction and Tubmanburg, the main highway to Sierra Leone.

"The dissidents attacked at 5:30 on Saturday evening. About 75 men entered Kley, they came with heavy firepower," a soldier said at the Po River.

Liberia's parliament on Friday extended a state of emergency introduced in February, when LURD rebels launched an earlier attack on Kley.

Diplomatic sources and analysts say at least some of the violence may have been stage-managed by Taylor to add weight to calls for a United Nations arms embargo to be dropped.

However, the U.N. this week extended sanctions, which also include an embargo on diamond exports and a travel ban, against Taylor and senior officials for another year.

The sanctions were imposed on Taylor last year for fomenting regional conflict by trading arms and diamonds with Sierra Leonean rebels, who have since ended their war. (Additional reporting by David Clarke in Abidjan).


May 12, 2002


© Robert W. Kranz  09-02-2002