Thousands flee in fierce battle for Liberia's capital

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The Independent Online

A fresh wave of fighting in the battle for Liberia's coastal capital, Monrovia, sent thousands more fleeing their homes yesterday as clashes erupted around the city's main bridges.

A fresh wave of fighting in the battle for Liberia's coastal capital, Monrovia, sent thousands more fleeing their homes yesterday as clashes erupted around the city's main bridges.

Mortar shells slammed into the central and diplomatic districts, where, only hours earlier, the US ambassador, John W Blaney, had called on the rebels to pull at least 12km back from Monrovia to the Po river to allow African peace-keepers to deploy.

But the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy replied with a fierce attack on government troops, who were apparently preparing their own offensive.

"Why should I pull back? We'll hand over positions to the peacekeepers, not to [President Charles] Taylor," said the Lurd chairman, Sekou Conneh.

By mid-afternoon, stray bullets zinged through the deserted city centre. Terrified civilians crouched as they sprinted across dangerous intersections, and people started to flood from the eastern edge of the city towards the centre, fearing the Lurd attack would circle around the city.

Johnett Bartuae jogged breathlessly down Somalia Drive balancing a packed basket on her head. Against her came a line of militia fighters in sunglasses and flip-flops heading for the front line.

"Rockets have been falling since morning back there. People are dying. We are getting out," she panted as gunfire crackled in the near distance.

At one point the rebels appeared to have taken Stockton Creek bridge, which leads to the airport road and President Taylor's mansion. Government forces later pushed them back.

Down the road from the bridge, floods of people ran from the fighting, carrying mattresses, suitcases and cooking utensils on their heads. "We are frustrated and dying. You tell the international community to come and help us," shouted a jogging man who would not stop to give his name.

International action over the coming week may determine when peace returns to the bloody capital. More than 2,000 US troops despatched by sea should arrive within five to seven days. The White House describes the intervention as "limited in time and scope".

And an announcement is expected tomorrow on the deployment of 700 Nigerian soldiers, the vanguard of a west African peace-keeping force that could reach 3,600 troops.

In a city already jammed with people lacking food and water and prone to a cholera epidemic, even for those who flee their homes there is no guarantee of safety. Indiscriminate mortar shelling and stray bullets have claimed many more than 200 lives in the past week alone.

The rounds often kill silently, sometimes falling from the sky after being fired into the air hundreds of metres away.

"Nowhere is safe around here," said a British aid worker, Karen Goodman Jones, in Graystone, a refugee camp opposite the US embassy. An instant later a gunshot rang out near by, and she ducked to the ground. "I think you see what I mean," she added. It is one of the most perilous places in Monrovia. Every day stray bullets fell people by the score.

More than 20,000 people have packed into a sprawling, rocky compound that was once a genteel oceanside home to US diplomats and their families.

The refugees bed down under flimsy plastic sheets between the boarded-up luxury villas, two of which have been converted to health centres.

The British aid agency Merlin has started erected walls of sandbags to offer a minimum of protection, but it is not enough, admitted Ms Goodman Jones. She said: "I know you can't get 5,000 people behind these. But we were here last night when bullets were whizzing past, so at least it's something."