Liberians flee as capital blazes

Monrovia - About 2,500 Liberian refugees stood on the deck of a Nigerian freighter yesterday, singing their national hymn and waving farewell to Monrovia as the ship inched away from the burning capital.

Clouds of dark smoke covered the city as street fighting raged on and young fighters set dozens of homes and buildings on fire. Rocket-propelled grenades slammed into the besieged Barclay military barracks, the flash point of the month of bloodshed that has ruined the capital.

At the Free Port of Monrovia, hundreds of Liberians tried to climb up the sides of the Nigerian freighter Bulk Challenger as it left the port. Fighting broke out among those who had paid pounds 50 for the five-day trip to Ghana but were left behind even after their luggage went out to sea.

"It was unbelievable - an exodus. It was pathetic," said Peter Sebok, the Dutch owner of West Coast Fisheries, whose offices are at the port.

The Liberians who made it on board sadly sang "Lone Star Forever," the national hymn.

Not far from the port the two main bridges into the capital, which run parallel across the Mesurado River, were each being held by rival enemy camps, making it difficult for people to move in and out of the city centre.

Government official and rebel leader, Charles Taylor, had vowed the battle for the military barracks held by his enemies would end in victory for his troops by the weekend. But members of the Ulimo-J faction who support his arch-rival, Roosevelt Johnson, fought fiercely as Mr Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) resumed shelling the Barclay Training Centre.

The clashes shattered hopes that Mr Johnson's evacuation from the country on Friday would spur moves toward ending the month of bloodshed which has destroyed the capital and taken hundreds, possibly thousands of lives.

Instead, the fighting became even more brutal yesterday. Hundreds of people among the 10,000 Liberians who have sought shelter at the United States embassy compound stood on a hill watching the execution of five NPFL fighters.

The throats of the NPFL fighters were slit; one of them had his ears chopped off. A naked boy, who appeared to be about 12 years old, danced around the bodies, waving an assault rifle above his head in a victory cheer.

Ecomog, the African peace-keeping force, had pulled back. The peace- keeping force entered the fighting earlier yesterday, shooting dead two NPFL militiamen who tried to prevent them from crossing one of the bridges.

The killings infuriated Mr Taylor. In radio contact with his commanders at the scene, the NPFL leader said: "Ecomog authorities will have to address themselves to the shooting incident because this is not the first time peace-keeping troops have behaved like this toward my men."

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