Liberians flee 'peace-keeping' offensive: Karl Maier in Greenville sees the effects on civilians of the war against Charles Taylor's rebels

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THE ONLY evidence of human life at the F J Grante Hospital in the south-eastern Liberian port town of Greenville pointed to a trail of death.

Bloodstained sheets and mattresses filled the emergency room where hospital staff had tried to save the lives of dozens of victims of the city's worst bombing raid by Nigerian jets on 18 March. Patients and staff abandoned the hospital the following day, fearing that the jets would return to finish their work.

Today Greenville, controlled by Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the main warring faction in the West African country's renewed civil war, is a ghost town, its 15,000 residents having fled to the bush.

'All the port workers, merchants, the people have left,' said the Reverend Hamilton C Ross, 50, pastor at the First United Methodist Church. 'Women and children were killed. All we can do now is pray.' As Mr Ross spoke, a young NPFL soldier with a monkey perched on his head walked by and vowed: 'If the Nigerians come to Greenville, they will die in Greenville.'

Each day for the past two weeks, Greenville had been shelled by Nigerian gunboats patrolling the Atlantic Ocean coast in an effort to enforce an economic embargo on areas controlled by the NPFL. The embargo is designed to force Mr Taylor to disarm his estimated 20,000-strong army and accept a peace plan sponsored by the 16-nation West African Economic Community.

Air raids, which were rare in Greenville, intensified on 14 March when jets taking off from Kenema in the neighbouring state of Sierre Leone fired rockets and sank a tugboat worth pounds 1m. Four days later, they returned for a devastating 25-minute bombing and strafing run. They first attacked the port, sending two rockets smashing into an empty warehouse and puncturing a water-tank that had just been refurbished by a British technician to provide the city with water. At least 15 civilians were believed to have been killed. One of the victims was the hospital administrator, Professor David Chon, killed by a fragmentation bomb dropped on the central market. He had gone there that morning to buy fish. The head of the Market Women's Association was killed, as was a small boy, who bled to death after shrapnel ripped open his leg. 'I watched two children die and their mother lose her left arm,' said Mr Ross.

'This is not a war, it is just terror,' said one foreign businessman who has stayed in Greenville. 'The gunboats shell indiscriminately. The planes try to hit anything that moves. If they see a car, they will attack it and return to spray both sides of the road to get the fleeing passengers.'

The jets and gunboats are part of the arsenal of the 15,000-strong West African Military Expedition, known as Ecomog, sent to Liberia in 1990 to halt the country's civil war. The force consists of at least 10,000 Nigerian soldiers as well as units from Gambia, Ghana, Guinea and Sierre Leone. Ecomog is supported by the United Nations, funded by the United States which has provided at least dollars 27m ( pounds 18m) for the force, and armed by France, which has provided the Nigerians with cluster bombs.

Ostensibly a peace-keeping force, Ecomog has gone on the offensive since the rupture of a two-year ceasefire on 15 October last year, when Mr Taylor's NPFL attacked the capital, Monrovia, where the government of the interim president, Amos Sawyer, is installed. Mr Taylor said in an interview that his forces were provoked by repeated hit-and-run attacks by the United Liberation Movement of Liberia (Ulimo), one of three armed factions allied to Ecomog.

Their air raids have targeted ports and towns across NPFL-controlled territory - at least 60 per cent of Liberia - killing hundreds of civilians and sparking the flight of thousands of refugees into dense forests and the neighbouring states of Ivory Coast and Guinea. One of the first major attacks occurred on 22 October last year, when jet aircraft dropped cluster bombs on the Firestone rubber plantation compound, killing 24 civilians and wounding 150 others.

The recent focus of the bombing raids and gunboat shelling has been the port of Buchanan which, like Greenville, Ecomog has said Mr Taylor has used to break the economic embargo, trading iron ore and timber for fuel and arms. On 19 March at 8.45am two jets came screaming overhead, prompting hundreds of people to run out of their homes and yell at passing vehicles: 'The planes are up, the planes are up.'

The aircraft returned twice, the last time at 12.45, when they strafed the city three times, firing rockets and machine-guns at a vehicle, wounding its driver and a family of four. The next day, gunboats opened up on the town at 7.30am and continued firing for 90 minutes. At least half of Buchanan's 75,000 residents have fled.

The raids, aimed at breaking the NPFL's will, appear to be having the opposite effect, sparking deep bitterness and swelling Mr Taylor's army. 'I know a lot of people who say 'give me a gun and let me kill two or three Ecomog soldiers',' said the foreign businessman in Greenville. 'It has become a matter of life and death.'

The Thebe Hospital, outside Gbarnga, capital of Mr Taylor's 'Greater Liberia', was the target of a controversial raid on 10 March. Ecomog's Nigerian commander, General Adetunji Olurin, denied his planes had struck the hospital and said they had attacked an NPFL military convoy. Tamba Collins, a nursing aide, was sleeping at his house at the compound when he was awakened by what he thought was a storm. 'I heard the sound of thunder and called out to a friend. I felt what I thought was water dripping down my head, but when I touched it I saw it was blood.' Shrapnel had crashed through the roof and ripped a gash on the right side of his head.

Mr Collins was one of five hospital workers wounded in the attack, which occurred at 10.50pm, according to the hospital director, Dr W T Gwenigale. The hospital compound was lit up that night, unlike the rest of Gbarnga and NPFL-controlled territory, which have been cut off from Liberia's electricity grid.

Exploding shells slammed into the south wall of the paediatric ward, just four feet to the right of a window looking in on 35 sleeping children being treated for malaria and malnutrition. None of them was hurt in the attack, although Dr Gwenigale believes some might have died when everyone fled into the bush. 'We were very lucky that more people were not hurt,' he said. 'We had painted big red crosses on the roof at the suggestion of the International Red Cross after planes attacked last year, but it did not work. The doctors and nurses can flee and find work elsewhere, but it is the people who will suffer. They have nowhere else to go.'

(Photograph omitted)