Heavy bombardment resumes in Monrovia

Heavy fighting resumed in the Liberian capital Monrovia on Friday after a 24-hour lull, as government forces battled to recapture the port and rebels showered the city centre with rockets and mortar shells.

The city's one million inhabitants, who are running desperately short of food and clean drinking water, scampered for cover, but several civilian casualties were reported.

Seven displaced people sheltering at Newport High School in the Mamba Point diplomatic quarter were killed instantly when a mortar shell landed on their compound. Another person was killed when a rocket landed near the office of Medecins Sans Frontieres Belgium, Hani Khalifa, the head of the MSF Belgium office told IRIN.

About 30 shells landed around Mamba Point, where the US embassy and UN building are situated, and two fell near Radio Veritas, a Roman Catholic radio station, which was damaged by an earlier bombardment last week.

The UN once again appealed to both sides to respect a June 17 ceasefire agreement, but preparations to send in an international peacekeeping force continued to move at snail's pace.

A lull in the fighting on Thursday morning had allowed many people to venture out in search of scarce food and water, but fighting between government forces and the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement resumed with a vengeance later in the day.

"[We] are no longer fighting just for [President Charles] Taylor but for our very survival. On Friday or Saturday, we are going to take back the Freeport from the LURD," General Roland Duo, Liberian army frontline commander told reporters on Thursday.

There was intense fighting on Friday around two bridges leading to Bushrod Island where the rebel-held port is situated. Government forces tried to battle their way across the Stockton bridge and the Tucker bridge, which link the island to a ring road that loops round the north of Monrovia and to the city centre. Residents in that area said the rebels appeared to be advancing against government troops.

Sources in rebel-held areas of Monrovia said LURD fighters had broken into food warehouses at the Freeport and had started taking away rice. This was being distributed to desperate civilians, with some being sold cheaply by the roadside.

The price of rice in government-held areas of Monrovia has more than doubled since LURD began its latest assault on the city a week ago. The rebel movement has attacked the city three times over the past three months.

The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) representative in Liberia, Charles Pitchford, said the situation in Monrovia was "shocking" with displaced people in the city facing an acute shortage of food and drinking water. Many were living on rain water collected in buckets.

In New York, the UN Security Council expressed concern at the renewed fighting. Council President Inocencio Arias of Spain said it welcomed moves to deploy an international peacekeeping force to Liberia, but council members "emphasised that all parties to the conflict must honour the ceasefire and commit themselves to signing a comprehensive peace agreement as soon as possible.

Arias also stressed that Liberian President Charles Taylor must "honour his commitment to leave Liberia so that the transitional government can be installed and peace restored."

Taylor has agreed to step down and take up an offer of asylum in Nigeria, but has said he will only leave after international peacekeepers arrive in Monrovia.

Nigeria has offered two army battalions comprising 1,500 men to lead a vanguard of peacekeepers into Liberia, but their deployment has been delayed by the continued fighting in Monrovia and wrangling over how much the United States and other western donors are willing to pay to finance the cost of the operation.

Jacques Klein, Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Special Representative for Liberia, told reporters in New York on Thursday that one battalion will be drawn from Nigerian troops currently serving at the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL).

Klein said he hoped the Nigerians would could be deployed within 7-10 days, adding that planning for the operation should be completed by Monday.

He said the US government had offered US $10 million to help pay for the Nigerians' deployment to Liberia, but he expressed impatience at delays in finalising their dispatch. "We stand between two options: hope and disaster. I hope that we can quickly move troops in, stop the killing, stabilize the situation," Klein said.

"People are dying of cholera, dysentery, dehydration while vehicles are being stolen from humanitarian organizations, while customs officials demand enormous bribes to bring in medicinal supplies. That's what we have to control," he added.

Officials of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the UN and the United States met in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown on Thursday to discuss the deployment of the Nigerian vanguard troops, but delayed a final decision on when to send them in until next week.

Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Martin Luther Agwai, told reporters in Freetown: "This is just the first stage of the meeting, there is going to be another meeting in Accra, on Monday. After that meeting I’m sure, we will know exactly the day the first troops will arrive in Liberia," Agwai said.

Asked whether the delay would simply not increase the suffering of the civilian population in Liberia, Agwai replied: "What is better? To rush to go in there and make a lot of mistakes or to really make sure that everything is done and done right? We think the best thing is, once we go there, we deliver."

He said ECOWAS could not afford such troop deployments on its own and hinted that it was still looking for Washington to provide more money. "We are discussing with the Americans. They have already put down $10 million and I am made to understand, there is more discussion."

Agwai, said the mainly African international peacekeeping force, which is expected to eventually number 5,000 men could be sent in for an indefinite period. "We want that force to stay as long as it is possible to have peace, stability, elections, disarmament, everything that has happened in Sierra Leone we want to see it happen in Liberia."

General Daniel Opande, the Nigerian commander of UNAMSIL, said the Nigerian battalion, NIBATT 15, which is currently based at Makeni in central Sierra Leone, would be part of the vanguard. He added that its deployment would not affect his security plans for Sierra Leone, where 13,000 UN peacekeepers are currently based.

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), appealed to governments to suspend the forced return of rejected Liberian asylum-seekers for at least six months. Canada, it noted, had announced such a suspension on Wednesday.

"The spiraling conflict has provoked large-scale population displacement and a complete breakdown of law and order throughout the country," UNHCR said in an advisory note sent to governments.

Liberians, it added, faced gross and systematic human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings, torture, sexual violence and abuse, disappearances, and arbitrary detention under extremely harsh conditions.

"We are asking governments within the West African region to continue to recognise Liberians as refugees as provided for under the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Convention, which they have all signed," UNHCR said.

"In other areas outside Africa where the OAU Convention is not applicable, we are calling on governments to undertake careful screening of Liberian asylum seekers," it added. "Those that are not recognised as refugees should still be considered favourably for complementary forms of protection."