- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia — Rebels attacked government forces within six miles of Monrovia yesterday and threatened to overrun the capital unless President Charles Taylor called off attacks on them.

The fresh fighting erupted as both sides in Liberia’s civil war lobbied for international peacekeepers, and mediators pushed back a deadline for a political settlement.

The government accused the insurgents of attacking its positions, while the rebel movement Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) said they were pushed into a corner.

“Taylor forces keep attacking our positions. We are now informing the Liberian people and the international community that should such unprovoked attacks continue, we will have no recourse but to retaliate with all-out force to overrun Monrovia,” the rebel movement said in a statement.

Defense Minister Daniel Chea said a battle was raging six miles outside Liberia’s capital.

“It is a volatile situation because there is a serious exchange of fire,” Mr. Chea told reporters at Po River Bridge near the front line where the sound of gunfire could be heard.

On Thursday, the rumble of artillery fire sent war-weary people fleeing toward the capital for the third time in just over a month.

Some balanced rolled-up mattresses, cooking pots and bundles of clothing on their heads and crossed the St. Paul River bridge into the capital — already swollen with refugees from previous rounds of fighting.

Among those on the move was 41-year-old Isaac Benson, who was leaving his village for the third time since fighting intensified last month. Clutching a radio, he listened for news of the attacks.

“As soon as we begin to put our lives together again, the fighting starts,” said Mr. Benson, who said he was headed to a U.S. Embassy residential compound now teeming with an estimated 5,000 people living in bamboo and tarpaulin tents.

Frustration has been mounting in Liberia at repeated delays in the deployment of an international stabilization force, promised under a June 17 cease-fire. West African countries have promised up to 1,500 troops.

Jacques Klein, the U.N. special envoy to Liberia, said in New York the United States will not make a decision on sending troops to Liberia until West African troops are deployed and Washington sees the size and seriousness of the region’s commitment to restore peace.

Mr. Chea said that while his government understood America’s reluctance to act, they hoped troops would be sent.

“I strongly believe the U.S. will take responsibility here,” he said. “We just hope that people in Congress and other politicians will realize they have some moral responsibility in Liberia.”

Many in Liberia, a country founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves, say U.S. troops are their only hope.

President Bush has tied any deployment of American troops to the departure of Mr. Taylor, a former warlord blamed for much of the violence in the region.

Mr. Taylor, who has accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria, has said he will only leave when peacekeepers arrive to assure an orderly transition. But rebels fear any force that comes in before Mr. Taylor departs will only strengthen his embattled regime.

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