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Thousands Stage Looting Spree in Liberian Capital - 2003-08-13

In the rebel-held seaport in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, thousands of people have gone on a looting spree, before Thursday's deadline for the rebels to hand over the port to West African peacekeepers. Stockpiles of food and fuel have been stolen.

The gate to the Freeport of Monrovia on the rebel-held Bush Road Island was wide open to the public.

Thousands of people ran inside, grabbing as much as they could carry from aid warehouses. Many people walked away, bent over from the weight of large sacks of rice and cornmeal on their shoulders.

Up the road, the door at the Liberian Petroleum Refining Company was also open. People carried out large cans full of gasoline. One man, who did not want to be identified, said rebels were selling the fuel for less than $10 a gallon, one-quarter of the cost of fuel on the government-held side. "Fuel price that was so high, now down to a very low price. They bust the oil field at LPRC and that is where everybody is going to get fuel to buy," he said.

The looting has greatly affected humanitarian aid agencies, such as the U.N. World Food Program. They had hoped to distribute the food from the port to tens of thousands of starving people on the government-held side, as soon as Nigerian-led peacekeepers take control of the port, which is scheduled for Thursday.

Now, there is nothing left to distribute until the first new shipment of supplies can be safely unloaded at the port. And no one is certain when that might be.

On Tuesday, American officials, including the U.S. ambassador and the commander of the Marine task force aboard warships off the coast of Liberia, signed an agreement with the main rebel group. The group, called LURD, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, agreed to withdraw from the port by mid-day Thursday.

The rebels captured the port last month, following a series of bloody offensives against forces loyal to the now-exiled leader, Charles Taylor. The rebel group had promised to hand over the port to peacekeepers as soon as Mr. Taylor resigned and left the country.

In private, many people in the rebel-held area tell VOA that LURD fighters have been looting the port area for days. The people say the stolen goods are then resold to civilians.

Meanwhile, aid workers say widespread hunger is threatening the health of tens of thousands of people on the government-held side of the capital.

Government militia fighters, manning checkpoints around the city, beg for food from passing vehicles. One fighter, who calls himself General Target, said he does not know how long he can survive. "I have not eaten anything since two days ago. No food to eat. We are just here. Nothing at all," he said.

Although peacekeepers will be allowed to take control of the port, rebel officials have not indicated how quickly they will withdraw their forces. LURD has been asked to withdraw 50 kilometers from the port area, north toward the border with Guinea.