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

April 15, 1996

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ With little left to loot, the streets of Monrovia calmed down today and a delicate truce appeared to hold. U.S. officials ended full-scale evacuations and Liberian leaders turned their attention to a standoff between rival militias at a military barracks.

Militia leader Charles Taylor has refused to negotiate with rival Roosevelt Johnson over the release of hundreds of hostages _ including West African peacekeepers and Lebanese civilians _ Johnson is holding at the barracks.

Taylor, who has declared himself president, today urged Monrovians to get back to business and salvage what’s left of their homes.

The recent fighting has left 60,000 Monrovians homeless and hungry. No one knows how many people have been killed, although dozens of decaying bodies have been seen on the streets.

Youths armed with AK-47 rifles, grenades and machetes finished their looting Sunday, striking terror as they raced through Monrovia in hot-wired, graffiti-laced stolen aid vehicles.

All the shops and office buildings in the lawless Liberian capital have been looted and most destroyed since government troops and rebels started fighting 10 days ago.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, tried to locate about 50 Americans hiding to escape the slaughter of the last week.

``It doesn’t appear that American citizens are being targeted by the rebels,″ said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Roger Kaplan. ``But I wouldn’t want to be a Liberian right now.″

U.S. Ambassador William Milan said while the full-scale evacuations had ended Sunday, the U.S. military would continue to airlift people out when necessary. Five U.S. Navy ships were also en route to West Africa.

As of Sunday, about 1,800 foreigners, including 500 Americans, had been evacuated, embassy officials said.

Even Roman Catholic Archbishop Michael Francis abandoned the city, after he was robbed and his church looted. ``In the next two weeks, there could be a mass starvation,″ he predicted Sunday as he boarded a U.S. helicopter with his mother.

John Frese, a U.S. security officer from Kenosha, Wis., has become a local hero, rescuing nearly 200 civilians trapped around Monrovia. He planned more rescue missions.

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.

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 West African country.

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.

Nearly half of Liberia’s 2.6 million people had 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.

An arrest warrant on murder charges against rebel leader Johnson last week prompted the new round of warfare.

Taylor said West African peacekeeping troops were deploying around the barracks in Monrovia where Johnson’s fighters were holding hundreds of people, including 22 peacekeepers and some 50 Lebanese citizens.

Taylor called on Johnson to surrender, saying he could turn himself in to the U.S. Embassy or the United Nations.

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

The United Nations and the Red Cross were forced to withdraw when looters overran their offices. On Sunday, 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.″

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