- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia — As rebels fought their way into Liberia’s war-torn capital, embattled President Charles Taylor vowed yesterday to fight to the last man.

He repeated his pledge to step down and accept asylum in Nigeria but said he would do so only after peacekeepers arrive in sufficient numbers.

“Because the fighting men and women of the armed forces of Liberia feel my departure is ultimately what … is going to happen, this has caused a morale problem,” Mr. Taylor said in an interview.

He was referring to those government militia fighters who turned back from fighting yesterday, saying they were done with war. Some have expressed concern they will be abandoned once Mr. Taylor leaves the country.

“My men must understand now that I’m going no place, nowhere, until the international community has sufficiently deployed troops in this country,” he said.

Mr. Taylor accused rebels of acting in bad faith and said government forces have moved “not an inch” in rebel territories.

Rebel forces say they did not instigate the fighting.

“I will stand and fight to the last man until they stop killing my own people,” he said.

Wearing a gray safari jacket and speaking on the balcony of his executive mansion overlooking the sea, he held three bullets in his hand.

Mr. Taylor also complained that U.S.-backed sanctions imposed by the United Nations to punish Liberia for gun and diamond running in neighboring Sierra Leone were preventing the government from adequately defending his people.

“President Bush must take some of the responsibility and the United Nations Security Council for preventing Liberia from being able to defend itself adequately,” he said.

Mr. Taylor, a former warlord blamed for much of the fighting in the 14 years since he rode to power, said the fight is not over.

“If anybody thinks that by coming and shelling the city we are going to high-tail and run out of town, I can tell them the fight is in Monrovia,” he said.

“I will never desert my city. I will never desert my people. … We will fight street to street, house to house, and we will defeat you,” he added.

Heavy explosions and machine-gun fire shook Monrovia yesterday as rebels punched into the city, sending tens of thousands of panicked residents and weary fighters streaming downtown.

Many more civilians surged toward the fighting waving leafy branches and demanding an end to more than a decade of turmoil.

The rebel assault — the third against Monrovia since last month — shattered hopes that a speedy deployment of international peacekeepers could avert fresh bloodshed in a country where hundreds of thousands have died in two savage civil wars.

As the battle intensified, fierce fighting broke out on the two bridges leading into downtown Monrovia and the port area.

“This is where the last fighting will take place. We will not allow them to cross the bridges,” said Liberia’s military chief Gen. Benjamin Yeaten.

A foreign news photographer was shot while covering the fighting at one of the bridges and he was being treated at the U.S. Embassy compound. There was no immediate word on his condition.

Rebel officials, in nearby Ghana for peace talks, said they did not intend to capture Monrovia.

“We are going to let the peace process take root,” said Joe Wiley of the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

Furious residents demanded to know what was keeping a long-promised peacekeeping force they hoped would be led by Americans.

President Bush has promised to support West African nations who plan to send 1,500 soldiers to enforce an often-violated June 17 cease-fire. But he said he was still deciding whether to send troops to the country, which was founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.

“If Americans want to help us, this is the time,” said Varney Gbassay, as truckloads of fighters armed with AK-47s and grenade launchers raced past his house and explosions echoed in the distance. “They must not wait until everyone dies.”

He said he is afraid to leave because his house might be looted and added that he had nowhere to run anyway.

Long lines of people hurried toward the city center and eastern neighborhoods with rolled up mattresses, bundles of clothes and pieces of furniture balanced on their heads. Among them were pro-government militia fighters, some wearing amulets they believe will protect them in battle.

“I don’t want to fight. I want peace,” said Moosa Kamara, a 23-year-old in a Spider-Man T-shirt who said he had been fighting with one faction or another since he was 11.

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