Fri, Jul 25, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Monrovia fighting continues even as Nigerians move on peacekeeping bid


Rebels and government forces battled with guns and grenades at Monrovia's strategic port yesterday, while West African leaders insisted they were speeding the first peacekeepers to stop fighting in the refugee-crowded capital.

Despite the duels at the port and sporadic explosions and gunfire through the night, rebels said they were putting in place a cease-fire they had promised since Tuesday.

"It takes a couple days for the fighting to calm down," a rebel leader, Charles Benney, said by telephone.

"We don't want to take the country by force. We want to do it by negotiated settlement ... a military takeover isn't in anyone's interest," said Benney, member of a three-year rebel campaign that has pushed President Charles Taylor into a last stronghold, Monrovia's besieged, densely populated downtown area.

Fighting since Saturday has killed hundreds of civilians, leaving bodies lying in the streets and aid workers burying other corpses on the city's beaches. Battles have cut off the main supplies of water and food, with the port -- crowded with warehouses holding foodstocks -- across the front-line in rebel hands.

With combat comparatively lighter yesterday, residents ran out in search of food -- only to find markets, normally stocked with wares from the port, virtually empty.

Government commanders on the ground have spoken of a major government counteroffensive to retake the port ahead of the arrival of Nigerian peacekeepers, which could freeze each side in their current positions.

Defense Minister Daniel Chea denied any such plans yesterday.

"No. We're only defending our lives and our people," Chea said by telephone from the port area, with sounds of battle raging in the background.

Of the promised deployment of peacekeepers, Chea said, "We've been waiting the arrival ... a long time now. When we see them, we will believe."

West African leaders on Wed-nesday announced they would send two Nigerian battalions, up to 1,300 men in all, to Liberia in days, the vanguard of what West Africans said should be a 3,250-member peace force to separate Liberia's warring sides.

The US has yet to say whether it will contribute to the force for Liberia, a major African Cold War ally. Many European, UN and African leaders have urged the US to participate.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of West Africa's leading regional bloc, renewed promises yesterday that the first Nigerian peacekeepers would arrive "within a week. Absolutely."

Deployment commander Brigadier General Fidelis Okonkwo's "task is to move the battalion to Monrovia as quickly as possible. If before, fine, but not beyond a week," Chambas said.

"As you know, we've already lost too much time," he said.

The first Nigerian battalion would come from Sierra Leone, detaching from a major UN peace deployment in that country. A second battalion would come from Nigeria itself.

Lieutenant General Martin Luther Agwai, Nigeria's army chief of staff, landed at Sierra Leone's international airport yesterday.

Chambas said Agwai was to meet with officials from the US European Command, the UN and West Africa on deployment of the Nigerians.

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