Civilians flee as war threatens to engulf Liberia

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The Independent Online
Monrovia (Reuters) - Shooting broke out again in the Liberian capital yesterday and gunmen from rival ethnic factions prowled the streets after clashes at the weekend which forced thousands of civilians to flee from their homes.

A US military assessment team was heading for the city by helicopter from Sierra Leone to decide whether to evacuate US and other foreign nationals because of the clashes which have sparked fears of a return to all-out war. And the Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Unity, Salim Ahmed Salim, warned: "The fighting in Monrovia represents a new, dangerous and unacceptable escalation of the conflict."

The fighting began after a weekend stand-off between supporters of warlord Roosevelt Johnson and the transitional ruling council of state, which has sacked him as a government minister and ordered police to arrest him for murder.

Rival militiamen moved about in the city centre yesterday, particularly around the barracks of the former national army where Mr Johnson was reported to have taken refuge.

Diplomats said several thousand civilians had taken refuge in a US embassy annexe and Washington had drafted contingency plans to evacuate US nationals. "The military personnel on the assessment team will determine if, when, where and how we should evacuate, if they decide on evacuation," one diplomatic source said.

Diplomats said foreign nationals had been trapped in other parts of the city. "There are a lot of people who are still in their homes. They are confined to their areas," one said.

The radio station of Charles Taylor, the council member whose National Patriotic Front of Liberia launched the civil war in 1989, advised civilians to leave the area of the barracks. "Government military forces and police units are about to carry out a major mop-up operation in the area," it said.

Nearby residents said that militiamen from Mr Johnson's Krahn tribe were coercing civilians to go with them into the barracks. Many members of the former national army, the Armed Forces of Liberia, are Krahn. "Johnson forces are asking people to go into the barracks. They want to use us as human shields," one resident said.

Fighting prevented Easter church services in much of the capital of Africa's oldest independent republic, an officially Christian nation founded by freed American slaves in 1847.

The seeds of the crisis go back to February when the council suspended Mr Johnson from the government after commanders in his Ulimo-J faction ousted him as leader. The peace deal agreed by Liberia's warlords and civilian politicians created the six-member ruling council and envisaged a ceasefire. But the killing goes on and the 150,000 death toll continues to rise.

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