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Liberia Leader Says Coup Attempt Crushed

June 5, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Liberia’s embattled president rejected his indictment on war crimes charges and claimed Thursday his government fended off a coup attempt while rebels advanced on the country’s capital.

Gunfire outside the capital, Monrovia, sent thousands of panicked people fleeing, with soldiers turning back refugees who descended on the city seeking sanctuary.

The surge in tensions came the day after the announcement of President Charles Taylor’s indictment on war-crimes charges by a U.N.-sponsored court. Taylor was accused of ``bearing the greatest responsibility″ for a 10-year terror campaign in which tens of thousands of people were killed, raped, kidnapped or maimed in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Taylor denounced the indictment Thursday, saying, ``To call the president of Liberia a war criminal? God himself will not permit it.″

Taylor also announced the alleged coup attempt while speaking to journalists in Monrovia. He had returned home overnight from nearby Ghana, site of new peace talks between Liberia’s government and rebels, who have taken about 60 percent of the country during their three-year campaign.

The rebels want to oust Taylor, a warlord-turned-president blamed by the United Nations for involvement in many of West Africa’s conflicts.

While in Ghana, Taylor escaped a push by war-crimes prosecutors for his arrest on the new indictment.

Taylor said the coup attempt was launched Wednesday, during his rare trip outside the country, by ``certain officials″ supported by unidentified foreign diplomats.

Taylor said he accepted the resignation of Vice President Moses Blah because of the coup attempt. He also said he would ask his entire Cabinet to resign to ``open the road to a government of national unity.″

``We are going to remain on course not for me, but for the Liberian people,″ Taylor vowed, adding, ``We want to continue to ask for your prayers.″

Blah was being detained at the home of a Liberian general and two of his bodyguards were under arrest elsewhere, a senior government official said on condition of anonymity.

Authorities gave no details of the alleged coup attempt. Its disclosure came with tensions building in the city over fears that fighting was nearing Monrovia.

``As I’m talking to you, there’s massive fighting going on ... with units trying to enter Monrovia,″ Taylor told reporters.

Panicked villagers fled the sounds of gunfire near a bridge over the Po River, about six miles northwest of the city.

Liberian defense officials said loyalist troops and rebels were fighting there.

Several hours later, the rattle of automatic weapons and louder, more percussive explosions were heard by an Associated Press reporter at Brewerville, several miles closer to the capital.

Government and rebel forces also were battling in the country’s southeast, defense officials said.

In Monrovia, troops patrolled streets in army trucks while other soldiers on the city’s outskirts blocked thousands of people _ mainly displaced people staying in temporary camps _ seeking sanctuary.

``The already precarious humanitarian situation risks becoming catastrophic if a peaceful solution isn’t reached immediately,″ said Ramin Rafirasme, spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program.

In Ghana, Liberian rebels convened for peace talks stayed quiet on the reports of escalating fighting.

Charles Benni, political adviser to Liberia’s largest rebel group, focused instead on authorities’ failure to arrest Taylor _ saying it amounted to ``an injustice to the Liberian people.″

The joint U.N.-Sierra Leone court accused Taylor of trafficking guns and diamonds with the Sierra Leone rebels, who killed, raped, kidnapped and maimed tens of thousands of Sierra Leone’s civilians.

Military intervention by Guinea, Britain and the United Nations finally defeated the rebels in 2002.

David Crane, the American prosecutor of the war-crimes court, expressed ``regret″ Thursday that Ghana’s government allowed Taylor to ``return to Liberia as an international fugitive.″

``We either stand up to impunity or we don’t,″ Crane said.

He also called on the U.N. Security Council to ``immediately take action regarding this threat to international peace and security.″

``All states are on notice that they cannot provide him with safe harbor,″ he said.

Taylor, a former Boston-area gas station attendant, won presidential elections in 1997, a year after a devastating seven-year civil war in Liberia ended.

Taylor sparked the war in 1986 with a failed coup attempt and emerged from the conflict as the country’s strongest warlord.

The conflict killed hundreds of thousands in Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century.

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