'50 dead' as mortars rain on Monrovia

Heavy fighting today engulfed the Liberian capital of Monrovia, killing at least 50 people as mortars barraged the city in an all-out battle between rebels and forces of President Charles Taylor.

A shell hit a house in one neighborhood, killing 18 people inside, emergency workers at the scene said. Another 27 Liberians were killed in other attacks, hospital officials said.

Shells also hit in and around the heavily fortified, two-story, hillside US Embassy compound. One shell hit a diplomatic residential compound across the street, where 10,000 Liberian refugees had sought shelter in tents.

An angry crowd dragged bodies out of the compound into the street in front of the US complex. At least five bodies were seen, and more were being brought out. Two Liberian guards working for the American embassy also were wounded.

One shell hit the commissary building inside the main US Embassy compound, but no one was injured. An American journalist was wounded in Monrovia's port area, the scene of fierce fighting for several days.

Helicopters swooped in bringing US Marines to secure the American embassy, as thousands of Liberians stood outside the compound asking when troops would come to protect them.

The aircraft dropped off Marines wearing green camouflage, body armor and helmets and took off carrying between 25 and 30 foreign aid workers and some foreign journalists.

Clutching bags and backpacks, they ran up the hill of the embassy compound through the pouring rain, as Marines and embassy officials yelled, "Go, Go."

They were to fly to neighboring Freetown, Sierra Leone.

One of those being evacuated, aid worker Eleanor Monbiot of World Vision, said that since Friday her organization had to stop food distribution because workers were hunkered down in a compound. Tens of thousands of people have flocked to the city, desperate to escape the mortar and gunfire.

Liberians are weary after 14 years of bloody turmoil. Many say they won't be satisfied that stability is possible until US peacekeepers land in the country, founded more than 150 years ago by freed American slaves.

Warlord-turned-president Taylor has pledged to resign and accept an offer of asylum in Nigeria - but only after peacekeepers arrive to ensure an orderly transition.

US President George W. Bush has set Taylor's departure as a condition to sending US troops.

West African nations are planning to send more than 1,500 soldiers to enforce the often-violated June 17 cease-fire. But with peacekeepers yet to arrive, Taylor has vowed to fight for Monrovia, his only remaining stronghold.

Liberians say they are fed up.

"We hold George Bush responsible for this mess," shouted a member of Taylor's elite Anti-Terrorist Unit as throngs of civilians hurried through his checkpoint Sunday.

Rebels pounded the city with mortars and pushed deeper into the northern suburbs Sunday before being repelled by government forces into the port area. The fighting, which continued into the night, sent a new wave of terrified residents fleeing with bundles of possessions balanced on their heads. The casualty toll was not clear.

In Washington, the State Department called for an immediate cease-fire by all parties and a focus on continuing peace talks in Ghana aimed at setting up a unity government to oversee fresh elections.

Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, the former Nigerian military ruler mediating peace negotiations in Ghana, also appealed for an end to the fighting.

Officials for the rebel movement Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy insisted they were only trying to pressure Taylor to step down.

"We're not trying to do a military takeover," LURD delegate Joe Wylie said in Ghana. "But we can help to speed things up. Since Taylor signed the cease-fire, he is running his mouth and amending his promises. We want to apply a little pressure on him. We want him to leave now."

Officials of the other major rebel group urged their counterparts in LURD to halt fighting in the capital, saying it was not the way to oust Taylor.

"I'm asking LURD to stop fighting, if you fight in the center of Monrovia, how can Taylor leave? We're appealing to them to draw out of Monrovia a bit and let the humanitarian agencies do their work," said Bleau Ju Boy, a spokesperson for the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, or MODEL, speaking at the Ghana peace talks.

Liberia's downtown area was full of T-shirt and jeans clad government fighters in pickup trucks, waving AK-47s and grenade launchers.

People dove for cover when gunfire sputtered along the streets.

Some vehicles with international aid agency logos were seen being driven by fighters, apparently stolen in rampant looting.

One pickup truck carried fighters and a televisions still in its box.

Liberian Defense Minister said he was working to stop the looting among his men.

Aid groups said Sunday that had treated about 300 wounded, both civilian and soldiers.

Taylor launched Liberian's earlier civil war in 1989, emerging in 1996 as the country's strongest warlord. He was elected president the following year and now faces rebels who include former rivals from the previous war.

A U.N.-backed tribunal has indicted him on war crimes for supporting Sierra Leone's notoriously brutal rebels.

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