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Starving crowds gather in Liberia capital
( 2003-08-09 10:37) (Agencies)

Starving crowds gathered in Liberia's war-divided capital Friday, stuffing leaves into their mouths to quell their hunger as aid agencies pressed for opening of humanitarian routes. Fighting surged in cities outside Monrovia.

Aid groups and US diplomats used a four-day break in fighting in the capital to cross front lines for the first time, with US Embassy workers escorted by West African troops rescuing a 7-year-old American-Liberian girl trapped on the rebel side by fighting.

Embassy workers in bulletproof vests crossed the New Bridge to bring back 7-year-old Shadya, a big-eyed girl in a white dress with a puffy white bow in her hair.

The American-born girl's mother is in the United States; her father is unknown. A 17-year-old sister came along Friday as a guardian.

Asked where she was going, the girl looked up and said, "America."

Asked if she was happy, she looked away, put her hand on a trembling mouth, and shook her head. "Because of my friends," she whispered.

The uneasy truce in the capital held no sway in Buchanan, Liberia's second-largest city, where residents reported fighting that prompted 8,000 civilians to take refuge in a Roman Catholic convent. In the north, rebels claimed to have retaken the town of Gbarnga, former stronghold of President Charles Taylor.

Rebels are driving home a 3-year-old war to oust Taylor, a former warlord blamed for 14 years of near-constant war in Liberia.

Under US and West African pressure, Taylor has pledged to resign Monday and leave Liberia. He named Vice President Moses Blah to complete his term.

Although many ordinary people here expressed doubt that Taylor will ever willingly leave power, or Liberia, diplomats here spoke Friday of Taylor possibly departing as soon as Monday, escorted into exile in Nigeria by fellow West African heads of state.

Taylor's spokesman, Vaani Passawe, confirmed South African President Thabo Mbeki and Ghanaian President John Kufuor were among those expected to attend Taylor's resignation ceremony. Liberian authorities refused comment on how soon after Taylor would leave.

A slowly building West African peace force and Taylor's pledge to step down has largely silenced mortars and rocket barrages in the capital, although chattering steel fusillades of AK-47 fire still burst the calm. Rebels raced around in pickup trucks on their side of the city, clutching assault rifles, rocket launchers and two prized anti-aircraft guns.

Despite the truce that has settled on Monrovia, authorities have been unable to breach the barriers between the capital's rebel-held port and the government-held central city. Rebel fighters and government troops hold opposite sides of bridges linking the two sides, blocking access to the port and its warehouses and shops stocked with food.

On the government side, women in the market offered only unripe peppers. Crowds showed what they were eating snails, leaves and flower bulbs considered inedible but nonetheless boiled for three hours until soft enough to gnaw.

"We're eating food that humans should not be eating," said 27-year-old Athanasius Carr, standing with dozens of others on a hill overlooking the New Bridge front line.

"People are dying!" cried a 15-year-old girl who gave her name only as Kema, staring down at the forbidden bridge.

Taylor's forces have blocked civilians from reaching the rebel side, where markets were piled high Friday with crisply fried chicken, bags of rice and piles of other grains.

"I didn't think it would be like this," said John Yealu, a 42-year-old civil engineer who reached rebel territory in Monrovia after swimming two front line rivers. Yealu said three children waited at home.

Still wet from the trip and holding a change of clothes in a plastic bag, Yealu marveled at the bustling street lined with food stalls, saying: "People free all around. Food all around."

Taylor has insisted that a U.N.-Sierra Leone court drop a war crimes indictment against him for involvement in a vicious civil war in Sierra Leone a demand prosecutors show no sign of meeting.

The International Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres used the break in fighting in Monrovia to cross the front lines for the first time Friday since at least July 19, when rebels initiated their siege.

Aid workers took medical supply kits to makeshift hospitals in rebel territory, where war wounded, cholera victims and others have been without antibiotics or painkillers.

International Committee of the Red Cross officials in Geneva said they hoped both sides would open Monrovia's divided lines to refugees and aid.

"But speaking to political representatives is one thing. Getting access on the ground is another," said Christoph Harnisch, head of the agency's sub-Saharan Africa division.

Outside Monrovia, residents reported a night of heavy fighting in Buchanan, a southern port city seized by rebels late last month.

Residents, speaking on condition of anonymity, reported 8,000 people were holed up in the courtyard of a convent, where nuns had little means to feed them or tend the wounded.

In Monrovia, rebel Gen. Morris Liberty claimed his fighters had taken the town of Gbarnga saying the mud on his feet showed how recently he returned from battle there. Taylor's spokesman Passawe, said he couldn't confirm that rebels had taken the town, Taylor's stronghold during the 1989-96 civil war.

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