Liberian President Renews Pledge to Quit
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ President Charles Taylor urged international peacekeepers Saturday to hurry to Liberia and renewed pledges to step down when they arrive, as shelling brought new carnage to the capital’s trapped people.
Taylor’s promise _ which he has reneged on before _ came hours after a mortar round slammed into a church harboring thousands of refugees, killing at least three and wounding 55 others. The explosion at Monrovia’s Great Refuge Temple marked the second time in two days that deadly shells have hit public buildings crowded with refugees in this city of 1 million people.
President Bush, who has ordered U.S. troops to Liberia’s coast to support a promised West African peace force, repeatedly has demanded that former warlord Taylor cede power as part of any peace deal.
``Let nobody have any concern about, ’Will President Taylor step down?‴ Taylor told a prayer rally in Monrovia’s leading sports stadium, packed with 30,000 refugees. ``I will step down.″
In his first comments since Bush’s deployment order, Taylor said, ``The presence of peacekeepers in this country is extremely necessary to redeem us and save our people. After they come, we will receive them, and I will turn over my office.
``I hope they can come sooner, and not later.″
He also insisted Monrovia was safer with him than without him, at least until peacekeepers arrive.
``If I were not here, there would be bodies all over the streets,″ he said.
A fresh mortar barrage followed Taylor’s speech Saturday, although most shells appeared to fall into the Atlantic.
At least hundreds of civilians have died in a week-old rebel assault on Monrovia, the latest round in insurgents’ two-month battle to take the city and topple Taylor, who faces U.N. war crimes charges in neighboring Sierra Leone and is blamed for 14 years of fighting in his own country. Taylor claimed Saturday that 1,000 people had been killed.
Also Saturday, Defense Minister Daniel Chea accused a smaller rebel faction of attacking government positions in southeastern Liberia.
Chea said the attacks began three days ago and rebel fighters were within 30 miles of Buchanan, a city packed with refugees fleeing the rebel assault on Monrovia.
The church, on a hill overlooking Monrovia’s rebel-held port and the heavily contested bridges leading from it, has taken in up to 6,000 people since rebels began attacking the capital in June, the Rev. Michael Chea said.
Fighting raged at the port. Witnesses said five shells fired from rebel-held turf crashed into the ground around the church at about 4 a.m. A sixth hit the church directly, exploding among the refugees bedded down for the night.
Fragments hit a young woman lying alongside her baby, killing the woman but sparing her month-old infant.
``Terrible, terrible, this war,″ said Konah Macgee, whose uncle was killed in the barrage. ``Our people are just dying day and night. Rockets are falling. Innocent people are dying.″
Macgee was stirring rice for her family in the shadows of the church’s open foundations.
Neighbors, contacted by telephone, said they counted 15 dead at the church. Chea, the pastor, later said three died _ two people whose bodies were still lying before the church, and a third who died later at a hospital.
About 55 people were wounded, 14 of them seriously, the pastor said.
Elsewhere, in soil next to Monrovia’s rocky Atlantic beaches, aid workers buried some of the dead from the previous day’s assault _ a mortar attack on streets, homes and a public school packed with refugees that killed at least 26.
Wearing white masks, workers of Medecins sans Frontieres, the French medical aid group, hauled the bodies of two women in white body bags and a baby wrapped in a white shroud over a rubbish dump.
They placed the bodies in graves marked by stakes, identifying the dead for reburial when the city’s cemeteries, blocked by fighting, open again.
``We are just like chickens in a poultry farm,″ stretcher bearer Francis Woeh Toe said as he tended to the three. ``Anybody can kill us at any time.″
After weeks of hoping for rescue, Monrovia’s people reacted with disbelief, even bitterness, at news that Bush ordered deployment of U.S. troops to Liberia’s coast.
Bush, who has made any troop deployment contingent on Taylor stepping down, said Americans would have only a limited role in what will be a West African-led peace force. The force’s planners have yet to announce a firm deployment date.
``You see, everybody looking to George W. Bush,″ Monrovia resident Bill Jacobs said. ``But I think it’s only God can solve our problem right now. Because we have to depend on Bush for a long time, man.″
Meanwhile, spiritual and government leaders declared Saturday a day of prayerful fasting _ a move bitterly resented by many ordinary people struggling to survive in the besieged, disease-ridden and hungry city.
``Everybody is already fasting, because there is no food,″ said Boaki Kiate, who has lived for two months in the squalid sports stadium, where refugees have been sleeping on the concrete floors of old locker rooms and corridors.
Ragged refugees largely ignored the finely dressed, 5,000-strong crowd gathered in the bleachers above to hear Taylor. He apologized for the suffering of refugees at the stadium but took no responsibility for it.
Dignitaries, clerics and security forces with AK-47s listened to a choir robed in red, white and blue.
``I’m a Christian. I can pray myself,″ said Paul Digen, a teacher whose sister died of cholera at the stadium last week. ``I’m going to find food.″