U.S. Bolsters Marines at Embassy, Civilians Flee to Port
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ One of the country’s main warlords was airlifted out of Monrovia today, diplomatic and military officials said. The move could help end a bloody standoff that has left the Liberian capital in ruins.
A U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Roosevelt Johnson left Monrovia en route to neighboring Ghana. ``He flew out this afternoon,″ said the official, who said details of the evacuation would be released later.
News of his departure came after thousands of Liberians fled to the port today seeking to sail out of Monrovia’s chaos, and efforts to negotiate a cease-fire in Liberia’s civil war stumbled.
The United States bolstered forces at the U.S. Embassy to 290 Marines, from 230, and three U.S. warships carrying 2,000 more moved within three miles off shore of the West African capital for the third straight day.
U.S. Ambassador William Milam, U.N. envoy Anthony Nyakyi and leaders of the African peacekeeping army said Johnson had agreed to a cease-fire late Thursday.
But by this morning, negotiators had not been able to reach his rival Charles Taylor, who had insisted that Johnson surrender before he stops fighting.
A high-ranking official of the African peacekeeping force deployed in Liberia said peacekeeping troops, in a convoy of tanks and armored vehicles, had sneaked Johnson out of a besieged army barracks and put him on a helicopter to neighboring Freetown, Sierra Leone.
From there, Johnson was expected to travel to Accra, Ghana to attend a summit next week on Liberia’s six-year civil war.
Thousands of civilians crowded the city’s port hoping to flee on several commercial ships setting sail for neighboring West African countries.
``There’s an old Russian ship that is rotten, in my opinion ... and at least 1,000 people are on board already,″ said Peter Sebok, owner of West Coast Fisheries. He said at least 2,000 other Liberians were trying to get on ships.
Sebok’s own fishing boat was heading to the Ivory Coast later today with 60 Liberians.
The standoff between Taylor and Johnson, who faces murder charges in connection with clashes in Monrovia in March, ignited the latest fighting, which began April 6.
``There will be no cease-fire until the situation is arrested,″ Taylor said over his radio station Thursday.
Taylor called on his National Patriotic Front of Liberia and other factions to assault the military training camp where Johnson’s fighters are holed up with frightened civilians.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard today around those barracks.
A businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity today told journalists he had seen Taylor’s fighters roasting and eating the limbs of their opponents on the beach.
There was no way to confirm the report, but cannibalism has been present throughout Liberia’s six-year civil war, with fighters believing the consumption of their rivals’ bodies gives them strength and courage.
Dogs could also be seen on the beach today, chewing on corpses dumped on the sand to be washed away by the sea.
Taylor and Johnson fighters clashed again Thursday on the strategically important Johnson Street Bridge. The bridge leads into the capital and is near the Mamba Point diplomatic section and the American Embassy, where heavy fighting Tuesday led U.S. Marines to shoot to death three Liberians firing weapons toward the compound.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said the latest American show of force was to remind faction leaders of the American presence, and to shorten the helicopter time between the ships and the U.S. Embassy.
``We think there is an adequate force there, but we want to be ready to reinforce our Marine detachment if necessary,″ Bacon said in Washington.
The U.S. military has been evacuating foreigners from the embassy in Monrovia since April 10. More than 2,000 people have been airlifted to neighboring countries, and 25 were evacuated Thursday.
The Clinton administration has endorsed plans for a summit on Liberia among West African nations next week in Ghana, and encouraged members of Liberia’s governing Council of State, which includes Taylor, to attend.