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Rebel Disputes Spark Liberia Violence - 2004-01-14

Divisions within rebel leadership in Liberia have triggered renewed violence, just as the peace process is to enter a crucial disarmament stage.

Violence broke out in several rebel-held areas in the past few days, as disputes among leaders created a power vacuum, and former rebels turned against one another.

Firefights have been reported in the cities of Gbarnga, Tubmanburg and Voinjama. At least seven people have been reported killed, but the numbers may be higher.

The clashes follow a split within the leadership of the main rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). Several dozen commanders, who broke away from the rest, say they no longer recognize Sekou Conneh as their leader.

They accuse him of taking bribes for cabinet appointments to Liberia's new power-sharing government, and demand that he be replaced by his estranged wife, Aicha Keita.

But Mrs. Keita, who has just returned to Liberia from her usual home in Guinea, said she has no plans to replace her husband as leader.

Mr. Conneh, a former tax official and used car salesman who now lives in Senegal, says he also plans to return to Liberia. "I will be in Monrovia for the disarmament program that is scheduled for the 20th," he said, referring to January. "I have to attend to that now. So we are supporting the peace process. We are ready for disarmament. All our conditions have been met with."

U.N. officials say they are closely monitoring the developments. They say they still hope the disarmament program will begin as scheduled, but that logistical problems may delay the process.

Thousands of U.N. peacekeeping troops have been gradually deploying across Liberia to prepare that process.

Meanwhile, fighters from another rebel group, known as MODEL, have complained that their commanders have started taking their weapons without giving them the compensation money promised by the United Nations.

The fighters say their commanders are selling the weapons to militias in western Ivory Coast, which use them to attack civilians.

There are reports 18 people have been killed in recent weeks in that volatile region. French peacekeepers deployed in Ivory Coast, which is also mostly controlled by rebels, are asking for U.N. help to restore order.