Ceasefire in Liberia is shattered by rebel attack

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The Independent Online

Hopes of a respite in the rebel onslaught on Monrovia have collapsed. Explosions rocked the Liberian capital yesterday and rebels reportedly took control of a strategic bridge, giving them access to the road to the airport and the city's northern suburbs.

Hopes of a respite in the rebel onslaught on Monrovia have collapsed. Explosions rocked the Liberian capital yesterday and rebels reportedly took control of a strategic bridge, giving them access to the road to the airport and the city's northern suburbs.

The latest fighting came a day after leaders of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd), a rebel group, proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire from their base in Ghana. It can only worsen the situation on the ground, as a city with hundreds of thousands of refugees descends into chaos.

The continuing combat has cut off food and water supplies, forcing desperate civilians to rely on often contaminated wells. The scant supplies that remain are mostly looted.

Military commanders said rebels had crossed the Stockton Creek bridge on a road that leads from the rebel-held port and the city centre towards the junction to the main airport.

Yesterday, hampered by torrential rain, aid workers unable to get to Monrovia's cemeteries were digging holes at the beach to bury the dead. Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed since the latest rebel offensive began after the weekend.

Diplomatic efforts to finalise a peace-keeping mission involving American troops appeared to have stalled, despite pressure from the United Nations, countries in the region and ordinary Liberians for Washington to intervene. Having signalled a fortnight ago that it was ready to commit a small force, the Bush administration gave no sign yesterday it had reached a firm decision.

A United Nations spokesman, Patrick Coker, said a 770-strong battalion from Nigeria will deploy in Liberia in a week, to help end the fighting.

The Nigerian battalion will peel off from a UN peace force already deployed in Sierra Leone, which adjoins Liberia. Because of its historic ties to a country founded 150 years ago by freed American slaves, the United States is regarded as Liberia's Western patron. But George Bush has made clear he will not send troops until Liberia's President, Charles Taylor, leaves.

US military helicopters have ferried in more marines to guard the embassy in Monrovia, which has remained open, and also flew out 17 foreign aid workers and journalists. More than 20 people were killed near the embassy this week when mortar shells fell on a diplomatic compound where refugees were sheltering.

In principle, Mr Taylor has accepted a Nigerian offer of refuge. But he says he will only leave when a peace-keeping force is in place. The bottom line seems to be that no outside party wants to risk sending in its soldiers when there is no peace to keep.

In an interview with The New York Times, Mr Taylor was more specific, saying he would announce on Saturday that he would step down "within 10 days" and hand power to the Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives, Yundueh Monorkomna. But whether that pledge is any more reliable than his earlier unfulfilled promises remains to be seen.

Many observers fear the heavy fighting will reduce rather than boost the chances of Mr Taylor leaving. "We're still under attack," said Daniel Chea, the Defence Minister. "It's still raining round after round of mortars."

In Washington, criticism of Mr Bush's inaction is growing, especially because two weeks ago he was in Africa, stressing US concern. Chester Crocker, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said more bad news from Liberia might create the impression that "the White House has changed its mind from the expectations built up during that trip".

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