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Liberian Capital Tense Amid Reports of Nearby Rebel Attacks - 2002-05-17

Residents of Liberia's capital, Monrovia, remain nervous following government reports this week that rebel attacks had come near the city.

People in Monrovia went about their normal routines on Friday. Many, however, could be seen at markets stocking up on food, water, and other necessities as rumors continue to circulate in the Liberian capital about the approach of fighting during the past few days.

The government and spokespeople for the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy last week said rebels had attacked and captured the central city of Gbarnga. The government later said its forces had retaken the city after an intense fight.

Witnesses in Gbarnga said there appeared to be little evidence of fierce fighting, other than a small number of bullet holes on the facades of some buildings.

Hundreds fled the city and came to Monrovia. Those remaining behind told reporters they had seen government soldiers firing into the air. Refugees fleeing the area say they did not see the rebels themselves.

In Monrovia, panic spread on Monday when residents heard blasts coming from the town of Arthington, 25 kilometers outside the city. The government said rebels had attacked the town, but officials on Thursday said government forces had recaptured it.

Monrovia is a city still suffering from the ravages of the 1990s civil war that eventually brought President Charles Taylor - a former rebel - to power.

Rebel fighters during the civil war destroyed the city's power grid and water supply system. Twelve years after the first attack on the capital, the city still has no electricity. To light their homes at night, people rely on generators. The vast majority who cannot afford generators use candles.

What is perhaps the deepest scar is the one left on the psyche of residents who remember the mass slaughters of civilians that occurred in Monrovia during the war.

Thirty-five-year-old Monrovia resident Gologar Karngar said rebels killed several of his family members during the civil war. He said the reports of new fighting are taking a psychological toll on him.

"I experienced everything. I know how painful it is to be in a war. There is a lot of fear. Fear for my life, and fear for the citizenry, and fear for everything - because you're running and you don't know where you're running. It makes your mind confused. You don't think fast. You're confused. And when you're in a confused state, you're out of your mind. We Liberians living in Monrovia, we're living a bad life. No water. No light. It's very, very bad for us. So to come back to war is a serious thing," he said.

The government of President Charles Taylor has been anxious to draw attention to the insurgence. Liberia has been under United Nations sanctions because of its support of rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone. Earlier this month, those sanctions - which include a weapons embargo - were extended by another year.

President Taylor made his case against the sanctions immediately following the unrest in Gbarnga last week, arguing the weapons embargo was hampering his forces' efforts to fight the rebels.

In Monrovia's central business district on Friday, residents haggled for rice, canned goods, and other necessities to stock in their homes.

Thirty-year-old Mitchell Jones stood by and watched. He told VOA he does not have the means to prepare for any unrest that may come.

"Those things can only happen when you have money. I don't have money. The money boys take precautions by buying enough food to keep in their houses. I don't have a cent. So, it is so pathetic to the extent where the poor masses suffer. What happens if war breaks out in Monrovia? All of the gentlemen you see here will suffer because we don't have money. There's no money. I can't take precautions. My precaution will only be to ask Almighty God to save us from this carnage that's coming," Mr. Jones said.

Many complained that prices of food and other essentials have skyrocketed, in some cases by 300 percent, since panic broke out earlier this week.