Panic grips Liberian capital as gunfire heard

By: Reuters English News Service
© Reuters Ltd. 2002

MONROVIA, May 13 (Reuters) - Panic gripped Liberia's capital Monrovia on Monday as the sound of approaching gunfire sparked fears that fighting between rebels and President Charles Taylor's forces was drawing near.

Monrovia residents took their children home from schools and trucks on the road were filled with people trying to flee the city centre and get back to the suburbs.

"I saw people running so I had to leave as well," said a woman with two children, who was trying to get to the Sinkor suburb. "You cannot see people running and begin to ask questions, you have to also leave as well."

The boom of heavy weapons could be heard from the city centre and residents said they thought the noise was coming from Artington, 25 km (16 miles) from the capital, where Taylor has a private residence.

Monrovia was the scene of bitter fighting during Liberia's brutal seven-year civil war, started by Taylor in 1989 and in which up to 200,000 people were killed.

Others said they heard gunfire from near the Po River bridge, 15 km from the city and one of the last major lines of defence between the city and forces of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).

LURD rebels, who are seeking to oust Taylor, said on Sunday they had attacked and taken over Kley, a town just 35 km (22 miles) from Monrovia, and were advancing toward the capital.

Liberia's parliament on Friday extended for six months a state of emergency introduced in February because of the crisis in the West African country.

The rebels appeared to intensify their campaign to topple Taylor in February, and this was the third time since then they have come withing 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.

There have been sporadic clashes between shadowy 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.

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 embargo to be dropped.

However, the U.N. this week extended sanctions which 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.

May 13, 2002

© Robert W. Kranz  09-02-2002