Liberian rebels attack capital They want the president out of power before peacekeepers arrive. Tens of thousands of people fled to a refugee camp.

Posted: July 20, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberian rebels seeking to oust President Charles Taylor surged into Monrovia, the capital, yesterday, sending tens of thousands of Liberians fleeing and all but destroying hopes for a peaceful U.S.-backed transition of power.

As rockets and mortars sporadically pounded their city, exiting civilians carrying mattresses, pots and large bundles on their heads clogged the streets. Many were scrambling toward a U.S. Embassy compound that is now a refugee camp. Some carted injured people in wheelbarrows to makeshift clinics run by aid workers.

The attack - the third rebel offensive on the capital in seven weeks - shattered the hopes of many Liberians. They had been praying for the quick arrival of West African peacekeepers, backed possibly by a small U.S. force, to allow Taylor to leave Liberia and prevent further bloodshed.

"These soldiers are not able to stop the rebels," Comfort Swen, 28, said as she watched retreating government fighters pour into downtown Monrovia. "That's why we're crying for the peacekeepers to come."

Late yesterday evening, Taylor angrily declared that the United States was partly to blame for the rebel offensive and vowed to defend the capital.

"The international community does not care about Liberia," Taylor said in a speech on state-run radio. "And I say to the U.S., blood is also on your hands. . . . While our people die, you wait out there."

The offensive came as President Bush continued to weigh whether and when to dispatch U.S. troops to help stabilize this nation founded by freed American slaves in 1847. A forward force of 1,000 West African peacekeepers has been approved, but a date for their arrival has not been set.

Bush has made any U.S. troop deployment conditional on Taylor's first resigning and leaving the country. But the U.S.-educated Taylor, who says he is prepared to accept asylum offered by Nigeria, has said he will not leave until peacekeepers arrive and the situation is stable.

Last month, a U.N.-backed war-crimes court indicted Taylor for crimes against humanity for his role in fueling a decade-long war in neighboring Sierra Leone. In Liberia, Taylor was behind nearly 10 years of conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The main rebel force, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, fears that a peacekeeping force could bolster Taylor. It has vowed to fight any outside force that lands before he leaves. But at peace talks in Ghana yesterday, the group's officials said they had no intention of taking over Monrovia and would allow the peace process to work - an effort urged in a statement later by the U.S. ambassador to Liberia, John W. Blaney, appealing to all sides to cease fire.

That's what most Liberians want. Earlier in the day, thousands marched down a main street, some intending to tell the rebels to stop fighting. Others were celebrating a false rumor that a ship with peacekeepers from the Economic Community of West African States had arrived at the port.

Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea arrived to disperse the demonstrators. He was suspicious that rebels would infiltrate their ranks and sneak into the city.

Soon, it became clear that the rebels did not need the crowd as a cover. Within hours of taking a key bridge, they were in Monrovia fighting street battles, as Taylor's frontline withered.

It was clear that many of Taylor's soldiers no longer wanted to fight for a government that was crumbling. Hundreds, many of them wearing women's wigs intended to frighten opponents, fled back into the city without putting up a resistance.

"We're tired of war," said Brandon Kamara, 23, a tall, lean Kalashnikov-toting fighter. "Our families are suffering and dying. I'm not going to fight."

A French photographer, Patrick Robert, on assignment for Time magazine, was shot in the chest and arm while covering fighting at a bridge, and Time said efforts were being made to evacuate him.

At Greystone, the U.S. compound-turned-refugee camp, a familiar scene was unfolding. Only yards away from the U.S. Embassy, where armed Marines stared from behind sandbags, Greystone has been a refuge for thousands of Liberians fleeing war over the last decade.

Yesterday, a few thousand people lined up outside the walls topped with barbed wire with their hurriedly packed belongings, begging to enter.

"They were firing rockets at us," said Comfort Troko, 32, who fled with her three children and carried a ripped suitcase on her head. "Now the Marines will protect us.

"If the international force doesn't come to help us, we are finished. Liberia is finished."

Contact staff writer Sudarsan Raghavan

at sraghavan@krwashington.com.

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