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Fighting Raging in Liberia; Rebels Attack Close to Capital - 2003-02-04

Fighting is raging in Liberia. Residents of the capital, Monrovia, say rebel attacks have come within a few kilometers of the city.

Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea on Tuesday said rebels were advancing toward the capital, Monrovia, after attacking the town of Tubmanburg and others along the way.

Residents poured out of their villages and headed on foot toward the capital, saying they had heard heavy gunfire in the area of Klay, about 30 kilometers northwest of Monrovia.

The defense minister urged residents of the capital to be calm, saying loyalist forces were holding back the rebel advance.

Witnesses said small trucks loaded with soldiers headed toward the combat zone on Tuesday.

The rebels fighting the forces of President Charles Taylor are with the group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD.

The group's leaders on Tuesday said they were prepared to take Monrovia in a week and they called on Mr. Taylor to avoid a bloodbath by leaving power now. The Liberian leader was away from Monrovia on Tuesday, attending a summit of African leaders in Ethiopia.

The insurgents have held much of the northwest for two years after launching their attacks from bases in neighboring Guinea. Their headquarters are in the northern Liberian town of Voinjama, which loyalist forces have tried but failed to capture on several occasions over the past year.

Rebels have intensified their attacks on the forces of President Taylor ahead of presidential elections that are scheduled for later this year. The rebels say they are stepping up their campaign to oust Mr. Taylor because they do not believe he will allow the elections to be free and fair.

Critics of the Liberian president have pointed to him as a source of instability in West Africa. His government remains under U.N. sanctions for his support of rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Most recently, the Ivory Coast government has accused Mr. Taylor of allowing his forces to fight as mercenaries alongside Ivorian rebels who are trying to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo.

Mr. Taylor has denied the charges, and accuses the international community, especially the United States, of conspiring against him.