Liberian warlord takes peace-keepers hostage

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The Independent Online


Monrovia - Fighting between rival ethnic factions rocked Liberia's capital for a fourth day yesterday, as the United States approved the airlifting of its citizens and other foreign nationals 0out to safety.

Hundreds of frightened civilians, fearing a resumption of the six-year- old civil war, took advantage of a temporary lull in the fighting to seek refuge in the United States embassy annexe, swelling the number already sheltering there.

Fighters loyal to the fugitive warlord Roosevelt Johnson held several hundred Lebanese and Liberian civilians and about 20 Nigerian peace-keepers hostage in a barracks where Mr Johnson was reported at one stage to be hiding.

The fighting and looting began at the weekend with a stand-off between supporters of Mr Johnson and soldiers loyal to the ruling council of state, which sacked him as its rural development minister and ordered his arrest on charges of murder during a clash with militia rivals.

The six-member council, which was set up under the latest of a long line of peace deals, comprises the main faction leaders as well as civilians.

Shooting began again near the army barracks. Diplomats, officials and witnesses said that about 40 Lebanese, mostly women and children, about 20 Nigeria peace-keepers and several hundred Liberians were being held in the barracks.

Diplomats said more than 200 foreigners were in the main US embassy compound. Others were trapped in their homes elsewhere in the city.

About 450 Americans are in Liberia, Africa's oldest independent republic, and which was founded by freed American slaves in 1847.

The smouldering civil war, which has killed 150,000 people, began in 1989. But for the past three years the Liberian capital has been comparatively safe.

The barracks of the Armed Forces of Liberia, which are now just another militia faction, has been the focus of fighting which has flared sporadically elsewhere in the city.

Sustained bursts of shooting have mingled over the past few days with mortar, artillery and rocket-propelled grenade blasts.

There was no reliable casualty toll from the fighting. Medical aid workers spoke of at least six dead and 40 wounded.

West African peace-keepers of the Ecomog force patrolled the city. A spokesman said that they were trying to broker a ceasefire.

"At the end of the day, all of us have to come to the negotiating table. It is my appeal to all of the parties to cease fire," Major-General John Inienger said, offering his Ecomog force as mediators.

Ghana, which is current chairman of the Economic Community of West African States, which sent in the peacekeepers, told Mr Johnson that they would ensure his security during talks on his differences with the council of state.

However, his whereabouts is not known.

Last August's peace deal envisaged a ceasefire, disarmament and elections taking place within a year.

But skirmishing militiamen have repeatedly breached the ceasefire, while the process of disarmament has yet to start.