Looting orgy grips Monrovia

Monrovia - Gangs of Liberian militiamen blasted their way through gates with rocket-propelled grenades and carried off their spoils in United Nations vehicles as fighting here turned into a frenzy of looting yesterday.

The United States diverted a warship from the Adriatic to help evacuate foreigners. Residents confined to their homes since fighting erupted on Saturday said food and water were running short. Looters attacked the Lebanese school next to the US embassy in the Mamba Point district and used vehicles from the UN military observer mission to carry off their spoils.

They also invaded UN Development Programme offices. A witness said looters, who have emptied shops of goods, were attacking homes and seizing private cars.

General John Inienger, commander of the Ecomog African peace-keeping force, said his men were trying to take key districts of the capital to prevent carnage spreading. Units had intercepted guerrillas trying to infiltrate the capital from western Liberia to back colleagues locked in fighting. A number of guerrillas died in the clash. "We ... should try and secure the Mamba Point area as a priority," he said, referring to the district where the UNDP offices, other international agencies, most embassies and diplomatic residences are. US helicopters have been ferrying foreigners from the US embassy in the district to Freetown or Dakar. US officials said flights might have to be restricted to night-time because of fear of daytime attack from militia gunners with rocket-propelled grenades. Nearly 400 people have been evacuated since Tuesday and hundreds more are in the embassy.

In six years of civil war in Liberia the capital had been relatively safe until clashes erupted nearly a week ago after the coalition government tried to arrest the Krahn tribe militia warlord, Roosevelt Johnson, on murder charges.

The fighting is the most serious threat to a 1995 peace accord which was signed in Nigeria last August.

Nigeria and Ghana, which have the largest contingents of troops in the Ecomog force, which was sent to Liberia in 1990, held urgent consultations on Wednesday and pledged their commitment to the regional peace-keeping effort. "Whatever the cost, Liberia and Liberians must not be abandoned to their fate," a Ghanaian official said after a delegation from President Jerry Rawlings held talks with the Nigerian military ruler, General Sani Abacha, in Abuja.

General Inienger said Ecomog peace-keepers and other hostages, including scores of Lebanese, were still held by Mr Johnson's backers.

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