Gunfire Rattles Through Liberia
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Liberian government troops captured the residence of a former warlord Saturday during more than a half-day of pitched fighting with his ex-rebel supporters.
The bodies of at least six people lay in the streets of downtown Monrovia, capital of this West African nation, and dozens of wounded civilians poured into local hospitals and clinics. Streets were nearly deserted as frightened residents barred the doors to their homes. Government troops patrolled the city, shouting jubilantly.
Machine-gun fire, exploding hand grenades and mortars erupted overnight Friday when President Charles Taylor’s personal security unit surrounded ex-warlord Roosevelt Johnson’s spacious apartment complex on the southern edge of the city center.
Johnson reportedly fled his residence as throngs of his supporters opened fire on the government soldiers. Battles continued Saturday as Taylor’s forces carried out house-to-house searches for Johnson’s followers.
Taylor said his soldiers had been trying to seize a building illegally occupied by Johnson’s ex-rebels, near his home. The president blamed the fighting on Johnson’s men, saying an arrest warrant had been issued for him.
Taylor said Johnson was hiding in the U.S. Embassy. The claim could not be independently confirmed and U.S. officials in Monrovia could not be reached.
``Enough is enough,″ Taylor told reporters. ``We will not react kindly to any attempt by the U.S. government to evacuate those individuals from Liberia.″
Several government soldiers were wounded in the fighting, which at various points raged near the presidential palace and within Monrovia’s main military barracks. It subsided to sporadic gunshots by Saturday evening.
West African peacekeepers based in the capital fell back to the outskirts of the city after Taylor’s soldiers encircled Johnson’s residence.
There was no explanation for the peacekeepers’ withdrawal. But a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Nigerian-led peacekeeping force, known as ECOMOG, had agreed not to intervene in what amounted to a government operation to round up opponents.
In a radio broadcast, Information Minister Joe Mulba called on residents to report ``dissident″ forces to authorities so they could be arrested.
Doctors and nurses were called on to treat an unknown number of wounded, including women and children, officials said.
Taylor’s personal security unit has clashed in recent months with Johnson’s supporters, who have accused the president of trying to kidnap and assassinate their leader.
Johnson told journalists Friday that members of his former rebel group were disgruntled by Taylor’s refusal to allow ECOMOG to direct the formation of a new national military and police force.
Instead, Taylor had handpicked members of his own former rebel group.
Many Liberians have vivid memories of the country’s seven-year civil war that left 150,000 people dead and prompted countless thousands more to flee their homes.
Johnson is a former foe of Taylor’s, but the two were among a number of warlords who signed a fragile truce in 1996. Johnson returned from exile to become Liberia’s rural development minister after Taylor won last July’s presidential elections. He has become distanced from Taylor’s administration in recent months and his future in the government is unclear.