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Liberian Civilians Face Growing Humanitarian Crisis - 2003-05-15

Hundreds of thousands of civilians in Liberia are facing a growing humanitarian crisis because of the escalating civil war there. The United Nations and human rights organizations are urging the government and rebels to agree to a power-sharing government at peace talks in Ghana next month.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers was hoping to convey the need for a power-sharing government directly to Liberian President Charles Taylor in Monrovia Wednesday.

But when the U.N. official arrived at the executive mansion, he was told his meeting with Mr. Taylor had been canceled. Mr. Lubbers met instead with presidential aide Nelson Blamoh and other government officials.

Mr. Lubbers, who is on a tour of West Africa, accused Liberian authorities of killing their own people. He said more than 400,000 civilians are in need of urgent assistance, but that it is impossible for aid agencies to reach them because of escalated fighting.

Liberian authorities responded by saying the people are victims of the rebel insurgency that began in 1999. They also accused Ivory Coast and Guinea of backing the rebels.

As the meeting took place, Liberian authorities say, fighting erupted in the Monrovia suburb of Sasstown, about 25 kilometers west of the capital.

The rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, along with a new rebel group, the eastern-based Movement for Democracy in Liberia, have made huge advances in fighting this year, and now control more than half the country.

Peace talks between the rebels and Mr. Taylor are scheduled for June second in Accra, but rebels say they will only agree to a cease-fire, if Mr. Taylor, himself a former rebel, leaves office.

Fabienne Hara of the London-based International Crisis Group says it is urgent the rebels and government reach some sort of agreement, but she doubts it will happen.

"Neither Taylor nor the LURD, nor any of the opposition is interested in peace, except on their own terms, and all the proposed peace talks before have been rejected by both sides," she said. "However, I think the situation is very difficult for Charles Taylor right now, and he has to agree to the peace talks. The peace talks in Ghana might be the only exit strategy that he has at the moment."

Earlier this month, the United Nations extended sanctions against Liberia's government for one year because of its support for rebel groups in neighboring countries, including Ivory Coast and Guinea.

Ms. Hara says Mr. Taylor also faces possible prosecution at a war crimes court in Sierra Leone for his recent support of rebels there.

Prosecutors at the U.N.-backed court have accused Mr. Taylor of killing the wanted Sierra Leone rebel leader Sam Bockarie to avoid prosecution. They also say Mr. Taylor ordered the killing of Mr. Bockarie's family members earlier this month.

In The Washington Post newspaper Thursday, the head of the tribunal, David Crane, is quoted as saying Mr. Taylor is harboring other war crimes suspects, and al-Qaida terrorists as well, as part of his network of illicit diamond trading.