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Civilians flee as Liberian town falls to rebels
( 2003-08-27 09:06) (Agencies)

Thousands of civilians fled the latest bout of fighting in Liberia on Tuesday as rebels pushed down a highway toward the capital Monrovia, undermining an already rocky peace deal.

Liberian women and children rest in Monrovia, Aug 25, 2003. Liberia's caretaker president urged West African peacekeepers to push into the lawless bush and stop carnage taking place despite a week-old peace deal meant to end nearly 14 years of conflict.   [Reuters]
Defense Minister Daniel Chea, fleeing civilians and government soldiers said the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) had seized Gbatala, a town 130 km (80 miles) from Monrovia on the highway to Ivory Coast.

The rebel advance through Liberia's lawless interior came after a weekend of skirmishes with government troops and accusations of a civilian massacre, prompting calls for African peacekeeping force Ecomil to deploy outside the capital.

"LURD is in Gbatala now. This is a serious violation of the cease-fire. The government has no interest in fighting and that is why we are urging (Ecomil) to deploy to the area," Chea said.

Just under an hour's drive south of Gbatala at the town of Totota, terrified civilians trooped toward Monrovia with meager bundles of possessions on their heads, hoping to find safety in the coastal capital policed by 1,500 Nigerian troops.

Liberian President Moses Zeh Blah is seen during an interview in Monrovia, Aug 25, 2003. Liberia's caretaker president urged West African peacekeepers to push into the lawless bush and stop carnage taking place despite a week-old peace deal meant to end nearly 14 years of conflict.   [Reuters]
"I saw them clear. They attacked on Sunday, just after we were coming out of church. We could hear mortars and rockets all over," said Anthony Yorwatea, 36, adding the rebels attacked Gbatala from four directions and he had seen seven bodies.

At Totota, which is a center for tens of thousands of Liberians displaced by nearly 14 years of war, government troops regrouped and licked their wounds after the rebel onslaught.

"We tried to defend but we could not make it. I'm putting my family somewhere safe and then I'm going back up there," said a soldier who goes by the name of General Sweet Candy.

LURD and allied rebel faction the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Model) struck a peace deal with the government last week to end civil war in the West African country.


The deal paves the way for an interim government in October and elections in two years but while rebels have pulled back from the capital on one axis, fighting on the two other main roads leading from the interior to Monrovia has barely paused.

LURD could not be reached for immediate comment.

United Nations Special Representative in Liberia Jacques Paul Klein flew to neighboring Guinea, which has harbored and supplied LURD's fighters, according to U.N. reports.

"It's urgent to find a solution for stabilization and in the interests of Guinea to make peace in the region," Klein said.

The latest fighting underlines the challenge of ending over a decade of war between drugged-up teenage fighters, especially in the bush, beyond lines of control and communications.

The United States, which has two warships offshore with a force of 2,300 including Marines, condemned the latest fighting.

"We are deeply concerned about the renewed violence... We find this completely unacceptable in light of the signed commitment of all these groups," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told a briefing.

Caretaker President Moses Blah said on Monday the African peacekeepers in Liberia to keep the warring parties apart needed to move quickly to end the carnage.

But Colonel Theophilus Tawiah of regional peace force Ecomil said troops would not push beyond the outskirts of Monrovia until reinforcements due from Mali, Senegal and Ghana arrived.

An Ecomil patrol went on Sunday to Liberia's second city Buchanan, held by Model, after shooting nearby sent thousands of terrified civilians scurrying for cover in Monrovia.

"We want to have those troops on the ground before we start thinking about deploying to Buchanan," Tawiah said on Tuesday.

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