Thousands Flee to U.S. Embassy Compound as Fighting Rages in Liberia
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Shelling and gunfire raged in the capital Monday, sending U.N. observers and at least 15,000 others fleeing to a U.S. Embassy compound. The Clinton administration is considering evacuating Americans from Liberia as early as Tuesday.
The fighting between government troops and warring rebel factions that broke out Saturday in Monrovia is the worst in three years.
``We hear rocket-propelled-grenade fire, mortar fire, heavy-arms fire,″ Dudley Sims, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, said by telephone. ``It’s pretty bad.″
The conflict between seven rebel factions fighting mainly along ethnic lines has killed more than 150,000 people and left at least half the country’s 2.3 million residents homeless in the six-year civil war.
A peace accord was supposed to clear the way for elections this year but renewed unrest in the country founded in 1847 by freed American slaves has caused the collapse of civil order.
U.S. officials in Washington said the latest fighting was taking place around the Barclay Training Center, an army barracks in downtown Monrovia where about 30 African peacekeepers were being held hostage. Three of their armored personnel carriers were reported captured by rebels.
About 12,000 African peacekeepers, most of them Nigerian, have been unable to stem Liberia’s fighting.
Paul Koulen, deputy representative of the U.N. Development Program in Monrovia, said the country’s only international airport was ruined. He said three U.S.-donated helicopters and a passenger airplane of Weasua Airlines, which flies in West Africa, had been destroyed.
``The airport has been destroyed, if you can really say that an airport already destroyed could be even more destroyed,″ he said, referring to the severe damage already inflicted on the airport throughout Liberia’s civil war.
Koulen, speaking from his office in the seaside diplomatic district of Mamba Point, said people were fleeing in all directions.
``We’ve seen these people with all their belongings on their heads _ beds, sheets, everything _ running up and down Mamba Point, depending on where the gunfire is coming from,″ he said. ``It has been a pathetic sight.″
There was no official word on casualties, but Koulen and other witnesses said they saw numerous bodies on the streets. U.S. officials said there were no reports of any American casualties.
Sims said a U.S. military team was prepared to head to Liberia to evacuate some 470 Americans. State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said U.S. military planes had been flown to neighboring Sierra Leone and that a team could be in Liberia by Tuesday to order an American evacuation.
Most of the Americans in Monrovia are missionaries, workers with nongovernmental organizations or businesspeople. There are 38 U.S. Embassy employees and their spouses; children are not allowed at the mission because of the dangerous duty.
U.S. Marines evacuated 2,400 Americans when rebel fighting engulfed the city in 1990.
Davies said 15,000 Liberians were being given refuge at the 27-acre residential compound of Americans working at the U.S. Embassy. The high-walled residential compound is a short walk from the U.S. Embassy, where the Egyptian ambassador and other diplomats took shelter.
Davies said the United States considered the fighting ``as an unconscionable use of force by armed factions that committed to a cease-fire and a peace accord last August.″
The agreement, like at least a dozen before it, collapsed when renewed fighting in the capital broke out Saturday as government troops tried to force Roosevelt Johnson, leader of the Ulimo rebel group, from his home in the eastern suburb of Sinkor.
Johnson, the recently dismissed minister of rural development, is wanted on murder charges stemming from clashes that killed several people in the capital last week.
Government troops overran Johnson’s compound Sunday, but he escaped and remained at large Monday.
The African peacekeepers deployed throughout Liberia to help disarm rebels reportedly were taking a neutral stance, trying to protect telecommunications, the airport and seaport.
John Nuahn, a security guard who answered the phone at the home of John Langlois, representative of the Carter Center in Monrovia, said the house had been ravaged by rebels.
``They looted everything,″ said Nuahn. He said Langlois had left him with food and had gone to the U.S. compound for protection. The Carter Center is an arm of the Atlanta-based group headed by former President Carter that promotes democracy worldwide.
``Everything we had is gone,″ Nuahn said. ``Even the food they left me to eat was looted. There’s nowhere to go. We put a chair behind the door and wait.″