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Stench From Rotting Bodies Wafts Over Monrovia, Thugs Roam Streets

April 11, 1996

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Bands of armed thugs roamed the streets of Monrovia looting homes and shops and smashing cars and windows Wednesday while hundreds of people lined up outside the U.S. Embassy in hopes of being evacuated.

Many Americans are among the more than 300 foreigners who have been airlifted out of the capital, where the stench of bodies fills the streets after the worst outbreak of violence in three years in Monrovia.

``I didn’t feel like there was anything more I could do at the present time in Liberia,″ Tanya Bernath, a 29-year-old New Yorker who works for the international relief agency Lutheran World Service, said after U.S. helicopters flew her two hours to safety in neighboring Sierra Leone.

``Everybody was trapped,″ Ms. Bernath said from Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. She was waiting to continue on to Dakar, Senegal, where a large international airport provides many flights to the United States and Europe.

Navy Cmdr. Bob Anderson, a spokesman for the U.S. European Command who is in Freetown, said about half of those evacuated late Tuesday and Wednesday were Americans. An Egyptian official said only one-fourth of the evacuees were Americans.

About 470 Americans live in Liberia, mostly in Monrovia, including 48 employed at the U.S. Embassy. American officials say nobody has been ordered to leave but a team of 18 Navy SEAL commandos was flown to Liberia to reinforce security at the U.S. Embassy.

Although the violence in Monrovia was not directed at U.S. citizens, the military nevertheless dispatched two AC-130 gunships to Sierra Leone. The planes are large propellor-driven planes heavily armed with machine guns and highly accurate cannon.

Liberia’s only international airport has been destroyed, the control tower bombed, and U.N.-donated helicopters and a commercial jet lie gutted on the tarmac.

The U.N. envoy to Liberia, Anthony Nyakyi, said a cease-fire was reached between government troops and rebels who have been holding hundreds of Liberians, Lebanese and other foreign civilians hostage at a military base in the capital.

Frank Akinola, a spokesman for the 12,000-member African peacekeeping force in the country, said some of their troops were released Wednesday along with some civilians. But he said the cease-fire was holding only in western parts of the city.

Paul Koulen, an official with the U.N. Development Program, said that tanks from the peacekeeping forces had moved into the Mamba Point neighborhood, where foreign embassies and U.N. offices are located, but that troops were doing little to protect people or property.

He said dozens of peacekeepers in front of the U.N. offices just sat by and watched as young men stripped and destroyed a half-dozen aid vehicles.

``We see two big trucks with (peacekeepers) and one tank comes up, looks at the scene for two minutes and they drive off again,″ Koulen said.

``This is the rebels’ livelihood: to loot and kill,″ said a Lebanese businessman, Peter Barbar.

Exactly how many people have been killed since fighting broke out Saturday is not clear.

One Red Cross worker, James Jallah, said he counted 16 bodies when he went outside for the first time in five days.

Up to 600 others summoned the courage Wednesday to line up outside the U.S. Embassy, hoping to join lifts on military helicopters out of the embattled capital, said spokesman Dudley Sims. It is the third time since 1990 that war has forced U.S. authorities to evacuate Americans from Liberia.

Up to 15,000 civilians, ranging from foreign diplomats to missionaries and Liberians, have fled into U.S. Embassy compounds and U.N. offices since Saturday.

The conflict among seven rebel factions has killed more than 150,000 people and left at least half the country’s 2.3 million people homeless.

Fighting in Liberia, founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, broke out when government troops tried to force rebel leader Roosevelt Johnson from his home in suburban Monrovia.

A peace accord was supposed to clear the way for elections this year, but civil order collapsed amid renewed unrest.

The peacekeeping troops, most of them Nigerian, have been unable to stem the strife, all seven radio stations have gone off the air because of energy shortages, and food is being rationed at the plush Mamba Point Hotel, where more than 500 people are holed up.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council met Wednesday to discuss the deteriorating situation. Council President Juan Somavia of Chile said afterward there was little that could be done until Liberia’s warring factions tire of fighting.

Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has asked the former undersecretary-general for political affairs, James Jonah, to travel to Liberia to help mediate. Jonah recently supervised presidential elections in war-torn Sierra Leone.

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