- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia — President Charles Taylor’s forces fought to hold Liberia’s capital yesterday against advancing rebels as thousands of terrified residents fled the battle zone through pounding rain and rising floodwaters.

Joining the people streaming out of the Atlantic Ocean beach community of Virginia, refugees deserted camps around the capital already taken by the rebels, fearful of what the insurgents might bring.

“I have never seen good rebels,” said James Siryon Cooper, rain streaming down his face as he clutched the hand of his 3-year-old son. “Rebels are rebels.”

Liberia’s main rebel movement recently has swept south toward the capital, Monrovia, pressing to take the city and drive out Mr. Taylor — indicted this week on war-crimes charges by an international tribunal in Sierra Leone for his involvement in a 10-year war there.

Fighting raged even as West African mediators said they had secured a promise from rebel delegates in Ghana to lay down their arms so peace talks could proceed.

“They have agreed to our concerns … not to let the humanitarian situation get out of hand, and they have promised to ask their colleagues back in Liberia to cease fire,” said Mohammed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the regional bloc mediating the talks.

The government delegation also recommitted itself to the negotiations, he said.

Talks were scheduled to continue Monday. But there was no immediate sign of a cessation of hostilities.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called for an end to the fighting, establishment of a new transitional government and elections.

The United States, he said, “remains committed to the ongoing reconciliation and cease-fire talks.”

“We expect no less of a commitment from the government and the rebels.”

About 600 rebels attacked Virginia at dawn yesterday, and government forces were pushing them back from the suburb’s critical bridge, Defense Minister Daniel Chea said.

At least five government soldiers and about 20 rebels were killed, Mr. Chea — in military fatigues and bulletproof vest — told reporters before jumping into a vehicle headed to the front. The figures could not be independently verified.

Civilians battling rising water to escape the area said they feared being caught behind rebel lines.

All seven of Monrovia’s camps for internally displaced people are now under the control of insurgents, World Food Program spokesman Ramin Rafirasme said in Dakar, Senegal.

An exodus from the camps, which housed some 115,000 people within six miles of the capital, was gaining momentum yesterday, he said.

“People are fleeing in all directions. Loads of people. Thousands or tens of thousands. We can’t quantify them,” Mr. Rafirasme said. “The situation remains highly volatile.”

The rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, has battled since 1999 to oust Mr. Taylor, who was elected president in 1997, a year after a devastating seven-year civil war ended.

Mr. Taylor sparked Liberia’s war in 1989 with a failed coup attempt and emerged from the conflict as the strongest warlord.

The war killed hundreds of thousands in Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century.

Mr. Taylor was in Ghana on Wednesday for the opening of the talks when the joint U.N.-Sierra Leone court revealed its indictment accusing him of trafficking guns and diamonds with Sierra Leonean rebels, who killed, raped, kidnapped and maimed tens of thousands of civilians.

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