Western residents and aid workers evacuated to French warship

Helicopters evacuated several hundred Europeans and other foreign nationals from Liberia to a French warship on Monday as heavy gunfire erupted once again in the western and southern suburbs of the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

Residents in the city told IRIN by telephone that rebels fighting to topple President Charles Taylor resumed their fire-fight with government troops at about 4.00 am, despite a ceasefire announced by their leaders at the weekend.

The Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement announced a three-day ceasefire on Sunday to avoid a "bloodbath" in Monrovia and allow Taylor to resign. But the president refused to quit, despite having said that he could step down for the sake of national reconciliation earlier in the week. Instead he called for calm and urged his troops to fight on.

Diplomatic sources in Abidjan said between 500 and 1,000 evacuees were lifted out of Monrovia by helicopters to a French warship off Liberia's coast. They included European and Ivorian nationals, the United Nations' remaining international staff in Monrovia and the Ethiopian national football team, which found itself trapped there after playing Liberia's national side.

The ship was expected to arrive in Abidjan in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire on Tuesday.

Chaos reigned in Monrovia as tens of thousands of displaced people were thrown into fresh panic by sounds of heavy mortar fire on Monday morning and the sight of foreigners leaving.

"People are running up and down. Schools, empty buildings and open spaces are full of people. Many are sleeping in the open without shelter, food or medicines. A humanitarian disaster will occur if this continues," Blidi Elliot, director general of the Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS) told IRIN by telephone from Monrovia on Monday.

Many of the displaced were from eight camps that housed internally displaced Liberians on the outskirts of Monrovia. At least 100,000 people lived in these camps. But relief workers said they all fled last week after they were overun by LURD rebels.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Activities (OCHA) said on Sunday the streets of Monrovia were "full of displaced people who are searching for safe havens, carrying whatever belongings they were able to take with them." Thousands had occupied schools and other public buildings while others had sheltered with relatives and friends in safer areas of the city.

The government had urged displaced people to regroup at the Samuel Doe sports complex in the east of Monrovia. But residents in the city told IRIN that some of the displaced were moving southeast towards Robersfield airport and north towards the town of Kakata, fearing an imminent rebel attack on Monrovia city centre.

Well informed residents in Monrovia said the government had deployed bigger weapons to try and dislodge LURD fighters from western suburbs the city. But despite the intensified bombardment, the rebels appeared to be holding their ground, they added.

There have been heavy casualties in the fighting. On Sunday, an IRIN correspondent visiting one suburb recently retaken by government forces counted 113 bodies lying in one main avenue.

Several hundred people headed for Monrovia's port on Monday where a commercial ship of unknown origin was offering to take passengers on a one way trip to Ghana for US $150 per passenger. About 50,000 Liberians already live in refugee camps in Ghana.

Robertsfield airport remained open and a charter flight was expected to evacuate the families of some of the Lebanese businessmen who controlled most of Monrovia's commercial activity. However, no scheduled flights was expected after Ghana Airways cancelled its service.

The LBS radio studios were overwhelmed by people searching for missing children and spouses. "There are just too many missing children, mothers left behind or spouses whose whereabouts haven't been established," Elliot said. He added that first lady Jewel Howard Taylor had offered to distribute rice and medicines to some of the displaced.

In Ghana where peace talks between the Liberian government and rebels have been stalled since they were formally opened last Wednesday, news reports quoted Mohammed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as saying they would not reconvene until Wednesday at the earliest. ECOWAS and the UN-backed Contact Group on Liberia are brokering the talks, which are due to take place at Akosombo, 100 km north of the capital Accra.

Initially only LURD and representatives of Taylor's government turned up. But a six-member negotiating team from a second rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) led by its head of military operations, Boi Bleahu Boi, arrived in Ghana on Sunday.

The MODEL representatives flew in from Cote d'Ivoire, which according to diplomats is a strong supporter of the recently formed movement that now controls most of southeastern Liberia. LURD, which has captured much of northern Liberia since it took up arms against Taylor in 1999, is said to be heavily backed by Guinea.

The UN Security Council was due to discuss the deteriorating situation in the West African country, in New York on Monday.