Britons dodge bullets to reach airlift from Liberia

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Freetown - Civilians fleeing the fighting in Liberia's embattled capital, Monrovia, yesterday described how they had dodged death during a four- day ordeal, before helicopters airlifted them to safety.

"The whole town was on the move. Thousands of refugees were on the streets and we could hear mortars and heavy artillery," said a Briton, David Wood- Roberts, who works for a British telecommunications company. "We grabbed all we could. There was danger from stray bullets whizzing everywhere."

Some civilians got out on a UN helicopter on Monday while others left on a US airlift.

"There was shooting everywhere. Women were crying. We were bracing ourselves to be shot," said another Briton, Wendy White.

The fighting, triggered by efforts to arrest a warlord on charges of murder on Saturday, brought fears of a return to the full-scale civil war, which in six years has killed more than 150,000 people. Until last weekend, the capital, patrolled by West African peace-keepers, was something of a safe haven.

Ms White, Mr Wood-Roberts and other evacuees said there was widespread looting and that terrified civilians had fled for their lives or had hid in their homes. "All the electrical shops and supermarkets in the city centre were looted and all pick-up trucks were taken to transport the stolen goods," Mr Wood-Roberts said.

"We were very fortunate to get out with our lives," said an American businessman, Rob Lewis, who came out on the US helicopter airlift. "The first rebel faction came through. They continued to loot and then people started getting killed." he added. "It was absolutely insane."

He and his wife were among 104 Americans and other foreign nationals ferried out of the city after the US airlift began on Tuesday.

Mr White and Mr Wood-Roberts said they heard reports of foreigners laying on floors in their homes to escape stray bullets. In one compound, wives hid in wardrobes from gunmen who withdrew after their husbands paid them to go away.

Mr White and Mr Wood-Roberts were among foreigners in a hotel in the Sinkor district where the fighting began on Saturday, after the council of state ordered Roosevelt Johnson's arrest on charges of murder, after a militia clash.

Police and militiamen loyal to Charles Taylor, the man who launched the civil war in 1989, and a rival faction leader, Alhaji Kromah, a fellow council member, laid siege to Johnson's home, triggering the clashes.

Ghanaians from the West African peace-keeping force rushed Mr White and Mr Wood-Roberts to a UN base in a 12-mile dash by car.

A fragile truce held in Monrovia yesterday and hundreds of fugitive civilians defied the sporadic shooting and prowling militia fighters to try to reach home.

Civilians in the city centre barracks, where Johnson was holed up with fighters from his Krahn tribe, said they were free to leave but afraid to venture out. They said about 30 West African peace-keepers held hostage had been freed but 36 Lebanese civilians had not.

Under Tuesday night's ceasefire agreement, Johnson agreed to release several hundred civilians and peace-keepers being held hostage by his forces.

"People want to leave but they are still concerned about their personal safety outside the barracks," Mark Johnson, one of several thousand civilians inside, said by telephone.

Witnesses said hundreds of the 15,000 people sheltering in a US embassy annexe had left, saying that if they had to die they preferred to die at home.

Intensive negotiations took place among the peace-keepers, faction leaders and the council of state to build on the ceasefire agreement.