Liberia faces disaster even as President backs truce

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The Independent Online

A humanitarian catastrophe is feared in the Liberian capital after days of fighting between government forces and rebels who have advanced to Monrovia's outskirts.

With two thirds of the country in rebel hands and insurgents bearing down on his last stronghold, Liberia's President, Charles Taylor, who was indicted by a UN-backed court in Sierra Leone for war crimes last week, appeared ready to bow to pressure from West African mediators yesterday. He signalled support for a truce that would revive failing peace negotiations and, in the short term, avert a bloodbath in the capital.

An ultimatum from the main rebel group ­ Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) ­ for Mr Taylor to resign by midnight last night was also reportedly lifted. But both sides remained on a war footing. The rebels accused the President of hiring mercenaries and challenged his legitimacy to sign any peace deal.

Meanwhile, the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières described pitiful conditions in the north of Monrovia, with staff and patients driven from the wards at the last functioning public hospital by the fighting. MSF also said a cholera epidemic would be difficult to avert under the current conditions.

"The Redemption Hospital is now in a war zone," Alain Kassa of MSF told The Independent by telephone from Monrovia. "We no longer have access. We tried to reach it but we saw terrible scenes. There are dead and rotting bodies in the main street."

He said the hospital's paediatric unit was looted by rebels on Saturday and on Tuesday patients, many of them seriously wounded, fled or were carried off by staff, one of them in a wheelbarrow.

As many as a million people have crowded into the capital in the past few days. "They are wandering around without food or water," Mr Kassa said. "The water supply has almost totally broken down. There are only a few private water trucks still operating."

Natalie Civet, a doctor with MSF, added: "Many people are getting close to exhaustion and risk dying in the streets. Cholera is endemic. Overcrowding, lack of food, lack of clean water and a complete absence of sanitation will favour a fast spread of the disease."

A spokesman for the UN World Food Programme said the humanitarian position in Monrovia was now "dramatic" and "highly volatile".

The biggest fear of terrified civilians besieged in the capital is that there may be a repeat of the carnage Monrovia witnessed at the height of the civil war in the 1990s.

Peace talks are in theory due to resume today, and witnesses said rebels had pulled back beyond Po River Bridge, seven miles from the city after earlier pushing to three miles from the centre. David Clarke, a Reuters reporter, saw a trail of destruction at the bridge yesterday with bloated corpses rotting on the asphalt while civilians continued to pour in to the city. Pro-government fighters, including women and children were, he said "jubilant" and "high on war".

The rebel offensive against Mr Taylor has raged for nearly three years. It suddenly gained pace last weekend after the UN served its indictment.

Most aid agencies and international organisations have left the country and the French military has taken hundreds of expatriates and refugees to Ivory Coast. They arrived by warship in Abidjan yesterday morning. Mr Kassa said: "People in Monrovia are very afraid of what will happen now. The international community has not made Liberia a priority. It is very sad."

The International Crisis Group (ICG), an influential conflict monitoring organisation, wrote to the UN Security Council yesterday, warning that the indictment of Mr Taylor could lead to a spiral of violence in West Africa.

Gareth Evans, the ICG's president, said: "Liberia is on the edge of complete disintegration and already its people are in grave danger from both conflict and the breakdown in minimal human security. Monrovia is under threat with the LURD rebels within an estimated 5km of the city centre. Heavy artillery fighting has occurred across the city.

"Internal fighting within Taylor's forces may threaten the city further. Mishandled, the indictment can spark a new spiral of violence of catastrophic proportions not only for the Liberian people but also for the citizens of Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast."

Ruud Lubbers, the UN high commissioner for refugees, openly called last week for Mr Taylor's removal.