Liberian Rebels Push Into Capital

John Lee Hooker
Library of Congress
Pick-up trucks crammed with soldiers clutching rocket-launchers and AK-47s rushed past streams of refugees Sunday as rebels shattered a short-lived cease-fire and made a second push into Liberia's besieged capital in their campaign to topple President Charles Taylor.

Automatic-weapon fire crackled and mortars thudded sporadically within the western neighborhoods of Monrovia in their drive to take the city.

Taylor's forces returning from the front — some in army uniforms and others jeans and T-shirts — said a small group of rebels had briefly crossed the St. Paul's River bridge that marks the western limit to the city.

Soldiers said the rebels had been beaten back at midday, and sounds of fighting stilled.

Liberia's main northern-based rebel movement began pressing hard from the capital's outskirts last week, their strongest move yet to depose Taylor.

Urged by the United States Friday not to make a bloody drive into the city of 1 million, rebels had agreed Saturday to a cease-fire and hold their positions around the capital.

On Sunday, Switzerland's Foreign Ministry said the Swiss honorary consul in Liberia, his assistant and two other Europeans are missing.

Juerg Landolt — the highest Swiss representative in Liberia — and the others were abducted in Monrovia Saturday, family friend Beat Krattli told The Associated Press.

Krattli said the four had been taken as hostages during the rebels' retreat from Monrovia. He identified the two other Europeans as a British man, Neil Duncan, and an Austrian woman, Helene Wachter.

In Monrovia's churches, voices lifted in prayers for peace mixed with sounds of a fifth day of fighting surrounding the city. Churchgoers in Sunday best shared rutted sidewalks with families rushing past with mattresses and bundles on their heads, crying children on their backs.

"Looking to the east, you see what we call our own soldiers and militia," Pastor Joseph Nufee told his congregation, the Christopolis Christian Center.

"Turn to the other side, the bombshells, the bombs are the only sound you hear," Nufee said, as worshippers lifted their hands toward the storefront church's rusted tin roof. "Wherever you go, there is no way out."

"God, bring lasting peace. Bring us genuine, sincere, and authentic peace," Archbishop Michael Francis, the city's most outspoken critic of Taylor, prayed in one rain-pelted Catholic parish church.

Rebels are fighting the most intense offensive of their three-year campaign to drive out Taylor, a onetime Liberian warlord who won presidential elections in 1997.

The Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy rebels have gained intense momentum since Wednesday, when a U.N.-Sierra Leone court announced Taylor's war-crimes indictment in another west African conflict, in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Taylor, in an interview Saturday with The Associated Press, questioned the indictment's lawfulness, and said rebels would never take the capital.

Taylor's forces today hold only about 40 percent of the country, founded by freed U.S. slaves in the 19th century.

The Liberian leader directed the battle Sunday from inside the walled compound on the city's port, lying on the western edge, and the rebels' apparent objective.

White trucks carrying International Red Cross Committee employees trundled out of the Red Cross' warehouses, near the port, as sporadic gunfire drew briefly closer.

Defense Minister Daniel Chea emerged for a time from Taylor's port battle center, telling reporters during the fighting, "We are making progress in pushing them back."

Thousands of refugees crossed back and forth in the area, some trying to go home, others turning back when they heard the gunfire in their old neighborhoods.

"Turn back, turn back," one soldier, AK-47 over his shoulder, yelled at women plodding down a street on the front line, deserted of all but soldiers.

"I want to go home," the woman said, and brushed back into the front.