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Conflicting Reports Emerge from Liberia about Fighting at Rebel Stronghold - 2002-08-16

In Liberia, there are conflicting reports about who is in control of the northern rebel base town of Voinjama. Liberian defense officials say government troops captured the town, following what they say was a fierce gun battle this week. Rebels deny the claim, and witnesses in Voinjama on Friday said the insurgents retained control of the town.

Rebels with the group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, LURD, speaking from their positions in neighboring Guinea, said Friday they remain in control of Voinjama.

The town, in northern Liberia near the Guinean border, is the rebels' political headquarters, from where they have directed much of their two-year-old campaign to topple President Charles Taylor. Employing mainly hit-and-run tactics, the insurgents stepped up their assaults earlier this year, and gained control over large portions of territory in the north and east of the country. Attacks in May came within 25 kilometers of the capital, Monrovia.

Press reports on Thursday quoted Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea as saying his forces were in control of Voinjama. But on Friday, Mr. Chea told VOA that government troops are still battling with rebels over the town.

"Our forces are inside Voinjama," said Mr. Chea. "We are in the city center. We have pushed them to the outskirts, and as I speak to you, our forces are in the middle of Voinjama. The only reason why we have not announced the actual taking of Voinjama is because, from a military standpoint, even though we are inside the city of Voinjama, we are still fighting them on the outskirts. We are inside, but militarily, before you can talk about control, you have to have consolidation of forces in there. They were in the town, [and] we pushed them out. They are still on the outskirts, battling government forces."

The defense minister's statements were contradicted by witnesses in Voinjama, who were reached by VOA via satellite telephone on Friday. They said rebels continued to be in control of the town, and said no government soldiers were visible anywhere near the town center. They said there was no fighting in or around Voinjama Friday.

The nearest fighting was reported in the vicinity of Zorzor, a town about 100 kilometers south of Voinjama, where heavy artillery and machine gun fire were heard, as rebel fighters battled government soldiers.

Officials said Charles Taylor, who led a brutal rebellion in the country before he was elected in 1997, was in the battle zone this week to personally direct troops.

Last year, Mr. Taylor declared what he said was a blanket amnesty for members of LURD and others. But the Liberian president has maintained a state of emergency since February, and human rights groups say his security forces have proceeded to arrest and torture those suspected of sympathizing with the rebels.

The Taylor government remains under U.N. sanctions that include a travel ban for high-ranking officials and a weapons embargo. The sanctions, renewed this year, were imposed due to Mr. Taylor's past support of rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Diplomats say the Taylor government continues to harbor some Sierra Leonean rebel fighters, who they believe are helping Taylor forces battle insurgents.