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Civilians trapped by Liberian rebel assault
( 2003-07-20 11:45) (Agencies)

Terrified residents of the Liberian capital were trapped in the crossfire on Sunday between rebels advancing into the city and forces loyal to President Charles Taylor, who vowed to fight to the last man.

Mortar rounds thudded after dark near Monrovia's diplomatic quarter after rebels firing rockets and machineguns advanced close to the center of the city on the West African coast.

Tens of thousands of people sought shelter in the area, distraught that promised regional peacekeepers had failed to show up in time to prevent a third rebel assault on the city in little more than a month.

Taylor, a former warlord, accused the United States of having "blood on its hands" for urging him to step down while he was still trying to rally forces to beat back the rebels.

On Saturday, rebels of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) broke through northern districts to reach the Gabriel Tucker bridge, which leads into the heart of the city. Taylor's forces managed to push them back a short way.

"They are still on the other side of the bridge and around the port area, so we are building up our defenses," Defense Minister Daniel Chea told Reuters. He said at least 20 civilians had been killed in Saturday's fighting.

As well as the battle itself, the city also fears looting by unruly fighters with little left to lose now Taylor has promised to step down in the hope of ending nearly 14 years of violence. Police said looters would be shot on sight.

"I say to you today, I will not leave this country, I will not move one inch until international peacekeepers are here," Taylor said in a message on his Kiss FM radio station.

"We must fight and we will continue to resist to the very last man until these murderers stop killing you, our people," added Taylor, who has been offered asylum in Nigeria.


West African leaders had initially said they hoped to get troops into Liberia by July 20, but even the survey team that is supposed to mark out a cease-fire line has yet to arrive and is not expected until midweek.

West Africa's main military power, Nigeria, said on Saturday a military team was heading to Liberia to assess the terrain in readiness for deploying a larger intervention force.

U.S. President Bush has said a small American force might also help to restore stability once Taylor leaves. The United States is under pressure to act in a country founded by freed American slaves in 1847.

"These are the people we know. These are the people who colonised us. So we are just pleading for the Americans to come," said Mike Williams, who joined a group of a couple of hundred protesters who marched to the U.S. embassy on Saturday.

The embassy told rebels to halt their advance and insisted that lasting peace could only come through negotiation.

"LURD should not advance further into the city and all parties should cease fire," Ambassador John W. Blaney said in a statement. Taylor's government and rebels signed a cease-fire on June 17 at talks in Ghana, but the truce has repeatedly been violated.

A French photographer working for Time magazine was shot and wounded during Saturday's fighting and was in a serious condition, the magazine said.

Time said Patrick Robert had suffered "life-threatening" injuries to the chest and arm and was being treated at a Red Cross trauma unit in Monrovia while efforts were made to evacuate him.

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