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Liberian Government Claims to Push Back Rebel Offensive - 2003-06-26

Liberian defense officials say their forces are pushing back a three-day rebel offensive on the capital, Monrovia. The escalated fighting has prompted a British call for U.S. intervention.

Liberian defense officials say forces loyal to President Charles Taylor forced rebels to retreat from the capital's strategic western port area.

Military officials say dozens of people, including civilians, have been killed and hundreds more injured. The Health Ministry says several hundred civilians were killed and 1,000 wounded. The casualty figures could not be independently confirmed.

Rebels who control most of Liberia have been unable to capture Monrovia during their four-year insurgency. They have been shelling parts of Monrovia with rockets and mortars in their latest attempt.

Liberian Information Minister Reginald Goodridge says it's important for broken-down peace talks in Ghana to resume despite the new fighting.

"Rebels want to win as well, so the whole thing is that we are calling on the international community to shake new movement to the peace process that was launched in Accra a few weeks ago," he said.

A cease-fire agreement signed last week called on Mr. Taylor to step down to pave the way for a transitional government without him. But Mr. Taylor now says he will remain in power until his elected term ends in January.

Ghanaian authorities who have been mediating the peace talks under auspices of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, have condemned the renewed fighting and the suffering inflicted on civilians.

Their plans for a regional peacekeeping force in Liberia have also been derailed by the latest fighting.

Liberian rebel spokesman Edward Farley says that regardless of whether there is fighting, a peacekeeping force should be sent immediately.

"We will ensure that the civilian community is saved while we are moving on Mr. Taylor, who is a military target of our operations, but we do not have any objection to ECOWAS or the international community in deploying a peacekeeping force to Liberia," said Edward Farley. "We need it. The Liberian people need a peacekeeping force."

The British ambassador to the United Nations, Jeremy Greenstock, who is leading a U.N. Security Council mission to west Africa, says the United States would be a natural choice to lead such a force.

Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century, but has been ravaged by 15 years of nearly continuous civil war since Mr. Taylor launched his own insurgency.

Mr. Taylor also faces an indictment for war crimes by a United Nations-backed court in Sierra Leone. He has been accused of supporting rebels and smuggling weapons and diamonds throughout west Africa, charges he denies.