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Bishop, Foreigners Flee, Leaving Liberians in ‘Bloody Nightmare’

April 15, 1996

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Through a week of slaughter and chaos, Liberia’s Roman Catholic bishop had kept his optimism, praying Monrovia would stabilize and refusing to abandon his people.

But after the main Catholic church was looted and he himself was robbed, even Archbishop Michael Francis gave up and fled the ruined city on Sunday with his mother.

``In the next two weeks, there could be a mass starvation,″ he said, before reluctantly boarding one of the U.S. helicopters that have now ferried 1,642 foreigners out of the embattled seaside capital.

Thousands of hungry, homeless people wandered the streets of Monrovia on Sunday, searching for food and shelter while shelling and small-arms fire threatened a flimsy two-day-old truce.

All the shops and office buildings in the capital have been looted and most of them destroyed since government troops and rebels started fighting nine days ago.

While drugged-out gangs still raced through the streets in stolen vehicles, brandishing AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and machetes, at least they no longer appeared to be menacing civilians now that the shops were picked clean.

But for the most part, terrified Liberians have been left to fend for themselves, as foreigners and even the world’s emergency aid groups have abandoned the warring West African country.

``It has been a bloody nightmare,″ said Tsukasa Kimoto of the U.N. World Food Program. After 40 hours at sea, he arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone on Sunday morning with 161 other U.N. workers and foreigners.

The United Nations and the Red Cross were forced to withdraw when looters overran their offices. On Sunday, a group of young thieves left a U.N. office carrying two mattresses and computers on their heads; they loaded so much loot into a car that its belly scraped the ground.

``I pity the condition of you Liberian civilians,″ Nigerian peacekeeper Ola Sehinde told a woman he protected as she looked for powdered milk for her baby. ``The warlords will never give you a chance to live a normal life.″

The recent fighting has left 60,000 Monrovians homeless. No one knows how many people have been killed, although dozens of decaying bodies have been seen on the streets. Local Red Cross workers began to clear away some of the bodies Sunday.

A U.S. military evacuation of Americans and foreigners began on the fourth day of the recent violence. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Roger Kaplan estimated that 500 Americans had been evacuated so far, and said a skeleton crew of 18 people would remain at the U.S. Embassy.

``It doesn’t appear that American citizens are being targeted by the rebels,″ he said. ``It’s a fairly stable situation for Americans. But I wouldn’t want to be a Liberian right now.″

The U.S. military had ferried out 1,642 people, including the Americans, by Sunday. A U.S. Marine amphibious group was to arrive in a week to help with further evacuations.

U.S. Ambassador William Milan said the rescue operation would continue, even after all the Americans who wanted to leave were flown out. ``Americans, of course, are our first priority,″ he said. ``And of the Americans, we believe there may be about 50 left that we can’t find.″

John Frese, a U.S. security officer from Kenosha, Wis., who already has rescued nearly 200 civilians trapped in Monrovia, was to make another sortie on Sunday in search of the missing Americans.

Frese has become a local hero. On Saturday, he led an armed U.N. convoy that brought 20 tons of food to 20,000 Liberians holed up at the U.S. residential compound. The dump trucks of bulgur wheat, vegetable oil and soybean mix were the first supplies to reach the refugees since the fighting started.

Some of the refugees at the sprawling U.S. residential complex were bitter the Americans were not doing more.

``The American government is not doing anything for this country,″ said Alphonso Boh, a Liberian. ``They only do things for the white people’s countries, like Bosnia.

``Do you know how many troops they sent to Bosnia?″ he asked, his voice rising. ``Why not here? Is it because we’re black?″

Nearly half of Liberia’s 2.6 million people have sought refuge in Monrovia from seven years of civil war among government soldiers and rival rebel factions; the war has claimed more than 150,000 lives.

Warring factions negotiated a cease-fire late Friday with help from visiting West African politicians. But 13 peace accords have been broken since the war began in 1989, and a truce earlier in the week collapsed within hours.

Gabriel Anyankpele, chief of staff for the 12,000 West African peacekeepers in Liberia, said the peacekeepers hoped to end the siege of a military barracks where supporters of rebel leader Roosevelt Johnson were holding 37 peacekeepers hostage. It was unclear whether the thousands of Liberians at the barracks were being held captive or remained voluntarily.

An arrest warrant on murder charges against Johnson last week prompted the new round of warfare. The rebel leader’s spokesman Madison Wion said Sunday that Johnson wanted ``to put the peace process back on course.″

Wion told The Associated Press that his boss was in hiding and blamed faction leaders Charles Taylor and Alhaji Kromah for the recent chaos.

Taylor, who sparked the war in December 1989 and is now a member of Liberia’s ruling State Council, has agreed to maintain the cease-fire only if Johnson surrenders unconditionally.

``As a government, we are not going to negotiate with these terrorists,″ Taylor said.

Rivals Taylor and Johnson agreed that the militia members surrounding the barracks sheltering Johnson’s supporters should be replaced by West African peacekeepers. Taylor said he and other militia leaders would pull their gunmen off the street once that happened.

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