Hundreds Die In Liberian Capital

People flee from an explosion at the U.S. embassy diplomatic complex in the Liberian capital Monrovia Wednesday, June 25, 2003. Explosives landed within a U.S. diplomatic residential complex in the town, detonating among thousands of terrified Liberians crowded into the compound to escape fighting which is engulfing the city
Liberia's health minister on Thursday reported 200-300 civilians killed and 1,000 wounded in a two-day battle for the country's besieged capital, and morgue workers described mortuaries filled to overflowing.

Soldiers commandeered private vehicles to collect more broken bodies from the streets of Monrovia at daylight Thursday, working amid pounding rain and crackling gunfire.

Monrovia was on edge but calmer early Thursday, with the shelling, rockets and frantic refugee movements of the past two days silenced.

There was no indication of retreat by rebels fighting to take the city, however, and unconfirmed reports had rebels sighted around the port, a key objective well into Monrovia.

Rebels are driving home a three-year war to oust warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, an indicted U.N.-war-crimes suspect.

Early Thursday, Health Minister Peter Coleman told The Associated Press that the past two days of fighting in the capital had killed between 200-300 civilians, and injured 1,000.

There was no word on government or rebel casualties.

Mortuary workers put the civilian toll in the "hundreds," describing morgues stacked with dead, after fighting that saw shells explode among crowded neighborhoods and fleeing families.

Coleman said victims included at least nine Liberians killed when rockets struck an evacuated U.S. diplomatic residential compound Wednesday.

Thousands of Monrovia's residents had taken refuge in the high-walled U.S. residential compound, which is across the street from the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy.

The U.S. State Department confirmed late Tuesday that two embassy workers, one a gardener, one a guard, and both Liberians, had been killed at the residential compound.

In neighboring Sierra Leone, U.N. helicopters and crews were on standby in the capital, Freetown.

U.N. spokesman Patrick Coker said crews were on "very short notice" to fly to Monrovia for evacuation of remaining U.N. workers.

French military helicopters and a French warship evacuated 530 foreigners from Monrovia earlier this month, when rebels first pushed into Monrovia.

The U.S. Embassy remains staffed and open in Liberia, maintaining a strong U.S. presence in a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century.

The European Union, United Nations and international aid groups also have kept some staff in place.

Ghana President John Kufuor, current chairman of West Africa's regional leaders' bloc, on Thursday condemned the fighting, and urged both sides to return to talks.

Liberia's government and rebels had reached their first-ever cease-fire on June 17, under urging of West African leaders, the United Nations, United States and European Union.

A key provision of the cease-fire called for talks leading to a transitional government, without Taylor.

Taylor, Liberia's president since 1997, declared Friday that by popular demand he would remain in power after all — stepping down only at the end of his regular term in January.

Even when he stepped down, Taylor said, he would accept only his vice president as his successor.

Rebels denounced what they called Taylor's reneging on the accord.

Full-scale fighting resumed by Sunday. Tuesday's and Wednesday's battles were by far the war's fiercest assault on the capital.

The State Department said in a statement earlier this week that it condemned "all violations of the cease-fire and calls upon all combatants to stop fighting immediately, spare the lives and property of innocent civilians, and respect their obligations under the cease-fire."

In a message aimed at both Taylor and his enemies, Kufuor declared Thursday that regional leaders would have "zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means."

Taylor, a Boston-educated business graduate who later trained in Moammar Gadhafi's guerrilla camps, launched Liberia into civil war in 1989 when he led a small force into the country to overthrow then-President Samuel Doe.

Doe and at least 150,000 other Liberians died in the seven years of fighting that followed. Combatants repeatedly overran Monrovia, killing thousands, as Taylor and his rivals made and broke peace deals.

Taylor emerged from the war as Liberia's strongest warlord, and won the presidential elections the next year — elected, in part, out of Liberians' fear he would relaunch the civil war if he lost.

A U.N.-backed court announced Taylor's indictment on June 4, accusing him of key responsibility in a 10-year rebel terror campaign in Sierra Leone. U.N. sanctions already in place accused Taylor of gun- and diamond-running with the Sierra Leone rebels.