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Liberians Wary of  Renewed Conflict Amid Recent Fighting

In Liberia, there are growing calls for a cease-fire between the government of President Charles Taylor and rebels from the group known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, LURD. Fighting was reported to have neared the capital, Monrovia, earlier this month, prompting thousands of panicked residents to flee their homes.

For months, the government of Liberia has been reporting that LURD rebels have stepped up their attacks, mainly in the north and central part of the country. Reported raids have concentrated on the border with Guinea, which Liberia accuses of supporting the rebels.

The government in all cases has said it has repelled the attacks and retaken control of the places that it said had been captured by rebels. Residents who have fled areas of reported fighting have consistently said they heard gunfire, but did not see the rebels themselves.

Hundreds of men and women, carrying their children and belongings, have taken refuge at overcrowded camps like one that sits at the site of a former VOA transmitting station outside Monrovia.

The camp site is home to refugees like this 42-year-old man who ran from his home in the Bomi Hills area, north of Monrovia. He said the shooting brought back memories of Liberia's brutal civil war of the 1990s. He asked that his name not be revealed.

"To be frank with you, I did not see actually the people in question who were doing the shooting. But I heard the sound, and everyone panicked, and we decided to move. The sound I heard - I couldn't stand there to wait for anything to see. To be frank, I didn't see them, because I'm not patient to stand and see anything. So, I found my way to come. I have that memory [of the civil war], so I didn't want to suffer this time. This time, I said, 'it cannot happen to me.' So, when I saw the group moving, I followed," he said.

Accounts like this have prompted speculation among diplomats and critics of the government about whether the attacks have taken place in the way the government has reported.

The United Nations extended sanctions against Liberia this month, saying the country continues to support Sierra Leonean rebels by harboring members of the Revolutionary United Front rebel group.

Critics have accused the Taylor government of exaggerating reports of the fighting in an attempt to gain sympathy from the international community and get the U.N. sanctions lifted. Mr. Taylor has argued the arms embargo that is included in the sanctions is hampering his forces' efforts to fight the rebels.

Little is known about LURD. The International Crisis Group, an organization that monitors conflicts around the world, issued a report on the situation in Liberia last month. It described LURD as a serious military force capable of challenging Mr. Taylor's forces' control over the country. But it said the rebel group is in flux, with no political program or unified leadership.

Charles Taylor, who led a bloody rebellion before he was elected president in 1997, has been under public pressure to improve Liberia's living conditions - rated by the United Nations as among the worst in the world.

Twelve years after the start of the Liberian civil war, the capital is still without electricity or running water. In Monrovia, 30-year-old Mitchell Jones said he lived through the horrors of the 1990s civil war that killed tens of thousands of people. He says he does not want to live it again.

"I don't think war is necessary now for our country. We have fought seven years of war. We gained nothing but destruction of life and property. So, why should we continue to fight when we all talk about democracy? Why can't we go through the democratic process? If our leader is not doing what the citizens expect of him, I think the best way to change such a leader is to go through an electoral process, instead of killing our brothers and sisters," he said.

Presidential balloting is scheduled next year, in which Charles Taylor is expected to seek re-election. Preparations for the poll have been slow, and critics complain that no population census has been taken to prepare for the registration of voters. Many Liberian political opponents who would likely challenge Mr. Taylor in the race, remain in exile.

Togba-Nah Tipoteh is among the opposition politicians who have remained in Liberia. He tells VOA the issue of LURD is perhaps the biggest obstacle ahead of the elections.

"The government has said there is a war in this country. Fine. If there is a war, and these armed hostilities are continuing, and now even spreading - from the reports we get - then we must bring all of these hostilities to an immediate end, so that the suffering of our people can come to an end. Basically, almost the entirety of Liberian civil society organizations are demanding a cease-fire and are calling upon the government and the LURD to talk," he said.

Mr. Tipoteh, other opposition leaders, and member nations of the Economic Community of West African States have called for the international community to intervene and help resolve the Liberian crisis.

Analysts have warned that an all-out civil war in Liberia could destabilize the region. They fear a full-fledged conflict in Liberia could spill over the border and once again threaten peace in Sierra Leone.