- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia — The U.S. ambassador to Liberia appealed yesterday for rebels to pull back from the bloodied capital to allow food and other aid into the city, where shelling around the rebel-held port killed at least 16 civilians.

Explosions rocked Monrovia as rebels and government forces battled at key crossings leading to President Charles Taylor’s downtown stronghold. Government commanders and residents reported that the rebels were stepping up their eight-day drive into the city.

Rebels are pressing forward in their third attempt in two months to take Monrovia, an isolated and disease-ridden city of at least 1.3 million hungry residents and refugees. Their goal: driving out Mr. Taylor, a former warlord behind nearly 14 years of ruinous conflict in the once-prosperous West African nation.

The main rebel movement “needs to show that they have regard for the people of Liberia, that it is not indifferent to the great human suffering that is taking place here,” Ambassador John Blaney told reporters at the heavily guarded, high-walled U.S. Embassy.

The U.S. ambassador urged the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) movement to pull back to the natural boundary of Po River, six miles outside the capital. The withdrawal would open up the port and camps outside the refugee-choked city for vitally needed food and aid.

Mr. Blaney said Mr. Taylor had agreed to the proposal and he urged LURD to do the same. “If they want to get to a post-Taylor era, this is the way to do it,” he said.

Sekou Conneh, the rebels’ civilian chairman, said the rebels would retreat only when peacekeepers were in place.

“We agree to fall back, but we want the peacekeepers to come,” Mr. Conneh said. “We don’t want to hand over the port to Charles Taylor.”

Under international pressure to intervene, President Bush has ordered U.S. ships to take up positions off the coast of Liberia, ready to support a West African-led peace force that has been delayed amid debates over funding by the debt-strapped African nations.

Mr. Bush has demanded that Mr. Taylor, indicted for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, step down. Mr. Taylor says he will do so, accepting an asylum offer in Nigeria, only when peacekeepers arrive.

Fighting has focused on the port and bridges leading to downtown, one of Mr. Taylor’s last strongholds.

Insurgents overnight bypassed the Stockton Bridge, which leads from a rebel-held island to the mainland, government field officers said.

At daylight after a night of combat, rebels were in what had been a government-controlled suburb around the bridge — claiming to be in control.

Taking northern neighborhoods around the bridge would give rebels a foothold on the mainland, from which they could battle their way toward the government-held downtown.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz reiterated in a television interview yesterday that the U.S. forces sailing toward Liberia “are going in when there is a cease-fire, when Charles Taylor is leaving, has left.”

Mr. Wolfowitz told “Fox News Sunday” that the U.S. role is to assist the United Nations and West African countries “to stabilize the situation, to avert a humanitarian disaster. And as part of that, it’s necessary to get Charles Taylor to leave the country and for the U.N. to begin a political process.”

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