Liberia War Turns, Civilians Flee

Dead bodies from Wednesday's attack on people who were sheltering in the U.S. diplomatic complex are laid outside the U.S. Embassy in the Liberian capital Monrovia, Thursday, June 26, 2003. Angry crowds laid out the bloody, broken bodies of shelling victims before the U.S. Embassy on Thursday, accusing the United States of failing to protect Monrovia's people from fighting overrunning the capital.
President Charles Taylor's jubilant forces claimed to have retaken Liberia's key port Friday after a four-day artillery battle that killed hundreds of trapped civilians, leaving columns of rising smoke to mark the rebels' scorched-earth retreat.

"The rebels are on the run," battlefront commander Gen. Benjamin Yeaten declared, blaming the thick smoke around him on insurgents burning buildings as they fled to the western outskirts of Monrovia.

Rocket barrages and artillery and arms fire intensified Friday, as both sides appeared to be battling for the port, its well-stocked city warehouses and Monrovia's brewery ahead of honoring any new cease-fire.

Taylor's lawless troops roamed house-to-house under the bombardment, robbing people at gunpoint.

Refugees still streamed out of the port at midday Friday, despite the government claim of victory there. Families filed past pickup trucks full of soldiers waving clenched fists in victory.

One refugee, 45-year-old Minnie Suoh, said, "Whether or not the port has been recaptured is not important. What we want is peace so we can go back home."

Mortuaries filled as Monrovia's death toll climbed into the high hundreds, leaving civilians to hastily bury the dead — family members, and strangers found on the streets — on the city's Atlantic Ocean beaches, at times with rockets slamming into the sand around them.

With the city's food stocks tied up in the embattled port, rice, flour and other staples had tripled in price — if they could be found at all.

Hunger and disease grew in the city of 1 million, swelled by hundreds of thousands of refugees living in schoolyards, the national soccer stadium and the capital's once-grand Masonic temple.

West African mediators suspended Liberia's month-old peace talks in nearby Ghana for a week, saying they could give way to a U.N. Security Council mission arriving in West Africa on Friday.

Mediators had called upon Liberia's rebels and government to return to a June 17 cease-fire by 10 a.m. Friday, or see peace talks formally end.

Fighting intensified as the deadline neared, then passed.

Rebel political leaders declared a new truce at midday via e-mail to international news media. Fighting on the ground lessened only with the government's declaration of victory at the port, however.

Insurgents are fighting a 3-year-old campaign to oust Taylor, a newly U.N.-indicted war crimes suspect blamed internationally for much of West Africa's gunrunning and war-making since he launched Liberia into civil war in 1989.

Rebels have taken more than 60 percent of the country and now are going for the end goal: taking the capital, and toppling Taylor. Fighting surged over the weekend after Taylor announced he would stay in power at least through the January end of his term, in what was seen as a reneging of pledges during the peace talks to cede power in the interest of peace.

His government paused in defending the capital long enough to give a restrained response to President Bush's call Thursday for Taylor to step down. Liberia urged the United States to "remain proactive in the peace process" and made no direct mention of Mr. Bush's key request.

Residents said they believed the civilian death toll in the port alone to be at least 500, with families, left without any alternative, slipping corpses into swamps and interring them in shallow graves on the beach.

A stray rocket hit a funeral home overnight, and looters slipped in to steal equipment and furnishings out from under the dead.

Medecins Sans Frontiers, or Doctors Without Borders, appealed to nurses and other medical workers to go to the city's soccer stadium, where tens of thousands of refugees have crowded into sky boxes and stands.

Cholera had broken out among the refugees at the stadium even before fighting broke out Tuesday, and refugees mobbed any visitors there to cry for food and water.

Rebels include an array of Taylor's enemies from his years of fueling West Africa's conflicts. The insurgents include ex-combatants from Liberia's 1989-96 civil war, which Taylor launched.

Both Guinea and Ivory Coast accuse Taylor's fighters of armed incursions that threaten their own stability, and are thought to have sponsored the anti-Taylor rebellions in part as defensive moves. Both countries deny the accusations.

None of the rebels have any clear political objectives beyond ousting Taylor, raising fears of continuing bloody power struggles even if Taylor falls.

Taylor is under a war crimes indictment for allegedly backing rebels who fought a bloody civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Liberia is Africa's oldest free republic, founded by former American slaves. Given the U.S. connection, there are some calls for American intervention, similar to moves by the British to quell the fighting in Sierra Leone and the French to respond to Ivory Cost's recent unrest.

In a Thursday briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said "all options are under consideration."

"We have been willing to participate with a joint verification team if the parties start to abide by the ceasefire and we're able to verify that they are meeting their commitments," he said.