Fighting reported in Gbarnga

Several thousand people fled the town of Gbarnga in central Liberia following fighting between government troops and rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), news agencies reported on Wednesday.

A humanitarian source in the capital, Monrovia, said government troops had been deployed into the town of Weinsu, 40 km from Gbarnga, to try and repulse the rebels. Numbers of the displaced and reports of casualties could not be immediately ascertained, the source said on Thursday.

Gbranga once served as a headquarters of President Charles Taylor’s forces when he led a war of rebellion in 1989-1996, news agencies said.

A spokesman for the rebels, William Hanson, was quoted by the BBC on Wednesday as saying they had captured a number of strategically-important towns in the area. Hanson accused the government of using civilians as human shields in the conflict between government and rebels since 1998.

On 1 May, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Liberian army had committed war crimes in pursuit of the rebels including the execution of scores of civilians, widespread rape of women and girls, some as young as 12, and systematic burning of villages. LURD rebels, HRW said, had also perpetrated summary executions of alleged government collaborators, rape, and forced recruitment, including of children, since July 2000.

"Liberian civilians are once again bearing the brunt of a brutal war," Peter Takirambudde, executive director of HRW Africa division, said. "If the international community does not prevent further bloodshed, Liberia's war will destabilise the wider region."