Shelling hits crowded suburbs in battle for Liberian capital

Shells exploded in the suburbs of the Liberian capital yesterday, driving hundreds of people from their homes as the President's forces fought rebels advancing on Monrovia's city centre.

The fighting shattered a week-old truce and raised the prospect of a brutal end to Liberia's three-year insurgency - an all-out battle for the city of one million people, packed with hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled violence in the countryside.

The fighting on Tuesday night and yesterday marked the war's fiercest combat yet in the city. Charles Taylor, the President, vowed to crush the rebels. "This blatant act of terror will be fought all the way," he said on his private radio station, denying reports that he had fled the capital. The clashes were concentrated at the city's port, on the west side. Daniel Chea, the Defence Minister, said the front was three miles from the heart of Monrovia.

The Red Cross put out radio appeals for blood for the injured at Monrovia's John F Kennedy hospital, but shells falling on the city made it almost impossible for donors to venture out. The hospital had received nearly 200 wounded by midday. The attacks trapped families in one western district, leaving them to flee through the swamps to reach calmer neighbourhoods.

Mr Taylor's forces have lost at least 60 per cent of the country to two rebel groups, including the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, which are determined to drive him out. The President faces war crimes charges at a UN-backed court for supporting rebels in Sierra Leone.

A ceasefire reached on 17 June broke down on Friday when Mr Taylor announced he would not yield power as he had pledged. The truce had been part of a larger accord, hammered out in Ghana under pressure from west African leaders, America, the European Union and the United Nations. The pact called for talks leading to a transition government, without Mr Taylor.

The rebel movement suspended participation in the talks on Monday over what it said was the international mediators' failure to hold Mr Taylor to his pledge. The rebels insisted they were fighting only to "stabilise the situation" so that talks could continue. (AP)

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