- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia — Gunmen spread out on rooftops yesterday as government and rebel fighters in shorts and flip-flops traded grenade and machine-gun fire in an all-out battle for Liberia’s war-ruined capital.

Rebels pounded the city with mortars, pushing deeper into the northern suburbs and sending a renewed wave of terrified residents fleeing with bundles of possessions balanced on their heads. The casualty toll wasn’t clear, but hundreds had been killed when rebels fighting to oust President Charles Taylor last penetrated the city in June.

“We have been pushed to the wall,” said Defense Minister Daniel Chea as gunfire rattled in the background. “We made all the overtures of peace, and now we are fighting for our lives.”

Mr. Taylor has pledged to resign and accept an offer of asylum in Nigeria, but only after international peacekeepers arrive to ensure an orderly transition. Until then, he said in a weekend interview, he will “fight to the last man” for the capital, the only remaining territory under his control.

The United States yesterday ordered 41 troops belonging to a naval “antiterrorism security team” based in Rota, Spain, to Monrovia in addition to a military assessment team that was dispatched earlier, officials said.

The Defense Department said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had ordered the troops to join U.S. Marines guarding the U.S. Embassy there at the request of Ambassador John Blaney.

The State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the increased violence and called “on all parties to immediately cease all military activity.”

Government fighters made a stand yesterday at two bridges leading from the rebel-controlled port into downtown after putting up little resistance the day before. Snipers deployed on rooftops and fighters waged pitched battles on the streets.

Bands of fighters, some bare-chested, shot weapons over their heads as they ducked and dived across one of the bridges amid a barrage of bullets.

Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, the former Nigerian military ruler mediating peace negotiations in Ghana, appealed yesterday for an end to the fighting, which, he said, was endangering talks aimed at setting up a unity government to oversee elections.

Officials for the rebel movement Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy insisted that they remained committed to the talks and were only trying to pressure Mr. Taylor to step down, as promised under the June cease-fire.

“We’re not trying to do a military takeover,” LURD delegate Joe Wylie said in Ghana. “But we can help to speed things up. Since Taylor signed the cease-fire, he is running his mouth and amending his promises. We want to apply a little pressure on him. We want him to leave now.”

Furious at the resumption of bloodshed, many Liberians have demanded to know what is delaying the peacekeepers, who, they hope, will be led by Americans.

President Bush has promised assistance to West African nations planning to send more than 1,500 soldiers to enforce the often-violated June 17 cease-fire. But he has yet to decide whether to contribute troops.

“We hold George Bush responsible for this mess,” shouted a member of Mr. Taylor’s elite Anti-Terrorist Unit as throngs of civilians hurried through his checkpoint.

Long columns of fleeing residents were on the move, making their way through government checkpoints where bags and rolled-up mattresses were searched for weapons.

Wounded civilians were pushed in wheelbarrows to clinics run by international aid groups.

By yesterday afternoon, the French medical group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, had received one dead and 80 injured civilians. The British aid group Merlin treated 30 civilians, and the city’s main John F. Kennedy hospital received about a dozen injured, all but one of them soldiers.

Mortars slammed overnight into the neighborhood surrounding the U.S. Embassy compound, and a Liberian security guard there was shot and injured. Sporadic shelling and gunfire continued in the area throughout the day.

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