Rebels Near Liberian Capitol, Intense Fighting Continues
The move effectively shattering a week-old cease-fire agreement between rebel leaders and President Charles Taylor’s beleaguered government.
Explosives reportedly landed near a U.S. diplomatic residential compound in Monrovia, causing injuries among thousands of people who had flocked there seeking refuge from escalating violence in the West African country.
Wednesday’s incident marked the first time U.S. authorities had opened the compound to fleeing Liberian residents since 1996, during the height of Liberia’s 1989-1996 civil war.
A U.S. Embassy official told the Associated Press that authorities had no details on the numbers of casualties, but there were no reports that Americans were injured.
The embassy also issued an unsigned statement Wednesday condemning “rebels’ serious violation of the cease-fire, which has caused unwarranted terror and misery for tens of thousands of innocent Liberians,” the AP reported.
Fighting appears to have been renewed over the weekend when rebel and government forces resumed battling around key positions near Monrovia, leaving several dead and prompting thousands to flee to the city’s center, according to media reports. In all, Liberian rebel groups control some two-thirds of the country.
Despite the renewed fighting, rebel negotiators in Accra, Ghana, where peace talks had been taking place, said they still wanted a political peace plan.
“We are still committed to the Accra peace talks. However, we will not be as active as we were due to repeated attacks on our positions by Taylor’s forces,” Kabineh Jan’eh, the spokesman for the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy rebel group, told a United Nations news service on Tuesday.
Fighting on Tuesday night and Wednesday appeared to be some of fiercest clashes the city has seen, according to media reports from the region. The violence has been compounded by the vows of rebel groups to take control of Monrovia.
“We want to take control of the town. We cannot stop until we have control of the town,” Joe Gbalah, a rebel spokesman, told Reuters.
President Taylor, a former warlord, vowed to fight on Wednesday, denying reports that he had fled the city.
“This blatant act of terror will be fought all the way,” President Taylor said on his private radio station Wednesday according to an Associated Press report.
“My life is no more important than yours,” Taylor said. “I am here with the men and women in arms, encouraging them to fight on. Because my survival is their survival, and their survival is mine.”
In early June, a special U.N.-backed war crimes court indicted Taylor for war crimes, crimes against humanity and violations of international humanitarian law during neighboring Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war.
Last week, two rebel leaders and a representative from Taylor’s government signed a cease-fire in Accra in a bid to end some 14 years of conflict and create a transitional government without President Taylor — a condition the Liberian leader appeared to agree to in initial reports.
The cease-fire also reportedly gave mediators and leaders 30 days to complete full peace negotiations and opened the door to the possible deployment of a peacekeeping force in the country.
But hours after the truce was signed, government officials appeared to hedge on the details of Taylor’s resignation.
“We believe that all of those demands — like resignation, stepping aside, interim government and unity government — will have to be thrashed out,” government spokesman Vaanii Paasawe told the Associated Press last week.
On Monday night, chief peace talks negotiator General Abdulsalami Abubakar of Nigeria called a two-day recess to the talks, according to a report from a U.N. news service. Rebel leaders had apparently threatened to withdraw from the talks completely due to the conflicting statements as to whether Taylor would actually resign.
“To suggest otherwise or say that Taylor’s leaving is open to negotiations is unfortunate and not part of our understanding,” Tiah Slanger, the spokesman for the rebel group the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, told the U.N.’s Integrated Regional Information Networks.
But Slanger indicated that the peace negotiations may be salvageable adding, “We will make sure we come up to an understanding on the peace talks before we leave Accra.”