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Heavy Shelling, Gunfire Continue in Liberian Capital - 2003-07-25

Heavy shelling and gunfire continued Friday in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. A local school where hundreds had taken refuge was among the targets. Responding to the renewed violence, the U.N. refugee agency issued an urgent appeal for the deployment of international peacekeepers.

Monrovia awoke Friday to the sound of mortars exploding in the city's diplomatic quarter and elsewhere. Observers on the ground confirm that this is the heaviest shelling since Monday, when aid workers estimated 100 civilians were killed.

The head of the Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Alex Vines, a former member of the U.N. panel of experts on Liberia, tells VOA the main rebel group, called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, is staging a last-ditch offensive to capture the city.

"It's becoming quite clear that at least [rebel leader] Sekou Conneh and some of his military commanders are trying to capture Monrovia by force," he said. "So clearly they are aiming to oust Mr. Taylor and then be the authority in Monrovia that would welcome in a stabilization force. This is probably a desperate last chance by the rebels to try to get Monrovia through violent means."

Regional peacekeepers have been committed to Liberia, but are yet to arrive. At least two battalions of Nigerian troops are on standby, but a meeting to finalize arrangements for their deployment is not scheduled until next Monday.

The head of the U.N. refugee agency, Ruud Lubbers, alarmed by the extreme gravity of the situation Friday, appealed for the immediate deployment of peacekeepers.

Royal Institute's Mr. Vines said the rebels have no agenda beyond ousting President Taylor. "They [the rebels] haven't really had much of a vision except for the removal of Mr. Taylor. They don't really have a political agenda and manifesto to talk of," he explained. "Myself, when I've been in LURD areas earlier this year, I was struck that these rebels didn't really have any long-term vision, and I think that's reflected in the behavior pattern that we've seen over the last five days with what the LURD rebels have been trying to do in Monrovia."

President Taylor has said he will step down, but not before peacekeeping forces have been installed.

Spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders, Kris Torgeson, told VOA Friday the renewed fighting has worsened the already dire situation in Monrovia. "It continues to deteriorate, when civilian areas of the city continue to be hit both by random gunfire and mortars," she said. "It is especially troubling when it's a medical facility, these are two of the only functioning facilities that are able to cope with war wounded."

After a week of fighting, both food and drinking water are in short supply, and aid workers are warning of an impending humanitarian disaster.