Hundreds of people have fled parts of central Liberia following government reports of a rebel attack on the city of Gbarnga. Reports of the attacks come as the Liberian government protests the U.N. Security Council's decision Monday to extend sanctions for another year. The sanctions on Liberia were first imposed last year as a result of what U.N. officials said was the Liberian government's support of rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone.
The government of President Charles Taylor angrily denounced the U.N. move, saying the sanctions are no longer necessary since Sierra Leone officially declared its civil war over in January. In imposing the sanctions last year, U.N. officials accused Liberia of trafficking in diamonds from Sierra Leone and using the proceeds to provide the Sierra Leonean rebels with weapons. The sanctions ban Liberia from selling diamonds, and they prohibit President Taylor and other top government officials from traveling abroad. They also include a weapons embargo.
The government on Wednesday said fighting had flared between Taylor forces and what the government says are rebels with a group known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD. The government says the fighting has taken place in the country's central Bong county, an area that has traditionally been a stronghold for Mr. Taylor's supporters.
In condemning the extension of the sanctions, Liberian Information Minister Reginald Goodridge said the arms embargo is hampering efforts of Mr. Taylor's forces to fight the dissident forces.
Critics of the Taylor government have accused Mr. Taylor of using the reports of rebel attacks as part of an effort to garner support from the international community in the face of U.N. sanctions.
Residents fleeing the scene of the gunfire in Gbarnga early Wednesday told journalists they had not personally seen rebel fighters. They said they fled when they heard reports that an attack was imminent. Speaking from his office in the Netherlands, a spokesman for LURD claimed rebels had captured Gbarnga and are advancing toward the capital, Monrovia. The report was not independently confirmed.