U.S. Warships Arrive off Liberia as Rebels Close in
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Four U.S. warships carrying 2,000 Marines arrived off Liberia as residents of Monrovia on Monday fled before advancing rebels. The U.S. Embassy said the ships would help evacuate Americans and other foreigners from Liberia if necessary.
The rebels on Monday seized the eastern part of the American-managed Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. rubber plantation adjoining the main international airport, 35 miles from the capital, diplomats said.
They said the rebels surrounded the plantation factory a mile from Robertsfield International Airport.
But Trevor Hoskins, Bridgestone/Firestone’s executive director of public relations, said in Ohio that he talked Monday with the plantation managing director, ″who indicated ... everything was quiet.″
Officials of President Samuel Doe begged ″all peace-loving nations,″ including the United States, ″to come to the aid of the Liberian people.″ Doe has been holed up in his presidential mansion in Monrovia, shielded by about 1,000 Israeli-trained troops.
Information Minister Emmanuel Bouwier told the British Broadcasting Corp. in a telephone interview that Doe insisted he would not resign. Doe promised last Friday he would not run in scheduled 1991 elections.
The U.S. State Department has accused rebel leader Charles Taylor of receiving support from the radical North African nation of Libya, but it also has said Marines will not intervene in support of Doe’s government.
The rebels belong mostly to Liberia’s Gio and Mano tribes and invaded this West African nation of 2.5 million people from neighboring Ivory Coast last December.
Residents of Harbel, the rubber plantation town, said vehicles flying the red rebel flag and guerrillas wearing telltale red bandanas had moved onto the eastern part of the plantation.
A spokesman at Bridgestone Corp.’s Tokyo head office said the parent company could not confirm that, though it heard earlier that fighting took place on the plantation.
Hoskins said the plantation covers 120,000 acres and includes 8,500 employees and about 90,000 residents, mostly dependents.
About 10,000 Liberians reportedly also moved onto plantation land seeking refuge from the fighting.
Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. of Akron, Ohio, was merged into Bridgestone USA last August to form Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. The Liberian plantation produces about 100 million pounds of rubber a year.
The diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Liberian soldiers at a strategic checkpoint near Robertsfield airport fired on their own men, believing them to be rebels. The diplomats said airlines canceled flights, effectively closing the airport, in the confusion.
Diplomats and other sources who monitor military radio said they learned soldiers manning the checkpoint at Owensgrove, seven miles from the airport, fired mortars and machine guns at soldiers carrying wounded from the port of Buchanan late Sunday and that the fire was returned.
″They scared the hell out of each other and all took off into the bush, deserting the checkpoint,″ said one Western diplomat.
The sources said it was uncertain who now holds Owensgrove.
The rebels captured Buchanan, 60 miles from Monrovia, two weeks ago. It is the main port for exporting iron ore, which used to earn more than 70 percent of Liberia’s foreign currency.
In Monrovia, people of the Mandingo and Krahn tribes loyal to Doe - himself a Krahn - piled everything they had into taxis, trucks and buses. They said they were fleeing reprisals by rebels threatening this capital of about 400,000 residents.
″If they come, they’ll massacre us. So we’re going,″ said a father of four, heaving a mattress onto the back of a truck. He and two other Mandingo families were heading for Sierra Leone. Taxi drivers said mass flight had created a traffic jam at the border.
Spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler reported in Washington, ″Last Thursday, the State Department ordered the departure of dependents and non-essential personnel from our embassy in Monrovia. Today (Monday) at 1:00 p.m., Monrovian time, 33 official Americans departed on an Air Guinea flight. They will go to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and then on to the United States.
″Thirty-eight private American citizens also departed Liberia on the same flight. Approximately 70 official Americans and 1,200 private American citizens remain in Liberia. We have been strongly advising all U.S. citizens for several weeks to depart immediately, and several thousand have already left.″
The Embassy announced the arrival of four warships of the U.S. 6th Fleet, based in the Mediterranean. The ships arrived Sunday and remain over the horizon from Monrovia.
The British Embassy said two British frigates and a supply ship were in the area and may help out in any evacuation.
More than 50 Embassy workers, missionaries and their families and hundreds of Liberians crowded into Spriggs Payne Airfield, about five miles from the capital center, amid fears of a bloodbath if the rebels took the city.
It was from Spriggs Payne that the chartered Boeing 737 flew to Freetown.
Doe said Monday in appealing for help, ″It is the wishes of the people of this country that America can do something to stop the bloodshed.″
Lt. Gen. Henry Dubar, Doe’s military commander, admitted to reporters that soldiers had deserted their posts and said officers feared giving orders to their troops after they were issued live ammunition.
″The firing starts and they run away. They have to learn to stop panicking,″ he said.
Dubar hoped U.S. Marines would save Monrovia: ″The armed forces of Liberia would not consider a Marine landing an invasion. We are very happy about them coming.″
Doe seized power in 1979 in a bloody coup.
Liberia, founded in 1822 by descendants of freed U.S. slaves, in 1847 became the first independent country in black Africa.