MONROVIA, LIBERIA — WEST African peacekeeping forces and Liberian soldiers are fighting to repel a rebel attack on this damaged capital as tens of thousands of war-weary refugees flood the city's relief centers and hospitals.
Thundering explosions have rocked the city as Nigerian Alpha jets bomb the swamps in the northern section to drive out soldiers of rebel leader Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The capital's airport was closed yesterday because of heavy fighting, and there were reports of several casualties.
The NPFL offensive marks the worst fighting in two years, returning the divided nation to war and aggravating the region's worst security crisis.
More than 150,000 refugees have fled to central Monrovia since the fighting began, carrying children and possessions in wheelbarrows and on their backs. Water supplies have been cut off. A curfew is in effect between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.
Fighting was also reported in Gbarnga, site of Mr. Taylor's headquarters, and the rebel-held port of Buchanan.
The peacekeeping forces, sent to Liberia two years ago by the 16-nation Economic Community of West African States to impose a cease-fire, now find themselves drawn into a full-scale military conflict. ECOWAS leaders met in Cotonou, Benin, last week and called for a cease-fire by midnight last Wednesday: Taylor has ignored this.
The West Africans are to meet again Friday in Abuja, Nigeria, to discuss a possible UN role in resolving the conflict. They also have threatened a land, sea, and air embargo on Liberia if the fighting does not stop by Nov. 6.
Liberia's crisis began in late 1989, when Taylor led a small band of rebels on a series of raids against northeastern villages. The attacks soon focused on members of President Samuel Doe's ethnic group. By July 1990, the tribal conflict had spread to the capital.
A second rebel group led by Prince Yormic Johnson captured Monrovia on July 23. In response, ECOWAS sent 4,000 peacekeepers, known as ECOMOG troops, to Liberia in August of that year to disarm the rebel factions and pave the way for national elections.
Doe was killed by Prince Johnson's group in September 1990, and ECOMOG was left to mediate between the two rebel groups and the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). Johnson supported the West African intervention; Taylor, who was driven from the capital, has strongly opposed ECOMOG.
By November 1990, ECOWAS had established an interim government in Monrovia and a tense cease-fire was signed. Since then, Liberia has been divided, with the interim government and ECO-MOG controlling Monrovia, and the NPFL holding the rest of the country. Taylor has failed to disarm and encamp his soldiers under the terms of the accord. From stalemate to war
Prospects for peace seem dim. Momolou Sirleaf, the foreign minister for Taylor's shadow government, told a press conference in Ivory Coast last week that the NPFL would never disarm to ECOMOG because the peacekeepers had become a warring faction.
"The reason we couldn't disarm to ECOMOG was, let's face it, we had engaged in a protracted military conflict with ECOMOG for, say, four months," Mr. Sirleaf says. "You don't take your guns and give them to somebody that's been shooting at you."
As fighting has resumed, it has become difficult to distinguish between the peacekeepers, rebel forces of the United Liberation Movement of Democracy for Liberia (ULIMO), which launched an offensive against the NPFL in August, and the AFL. All are fighting against Taylor.
It is unclear how many rebels Taylor has fighting for him. Relief workers estimated that more than 1,000 troops attacked Caldwell, a base north of Monrovia.
Meanwhile, between 200 and 300 Nigerian soldiers have been arriving daily in Monrovia for the past three weeks as peacekeeping reinforcements, sources say. Another 1,500 are on call in Sierra Leone. Tons of ammunition have been flown in, the sources say.
ECOMOG refused to say how many new soldiers have arrived. One month ago, the force numbered between 7,000 and 8,000.
"We have said from time immemorial that ECOMOG is the problem in Liberia today," says Joe Mulbah, information minister for Taylor. "We are calling for a reduction in ECOMOG to about 1,500. We hope the United Nations can come in at this point." Cost to region
Taylor has mainly targeted Nigerian, Sierra Leonean, and Guinean contingents of the peacekeeping force, which also includes soldiers from Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, and Mali. Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida had been Doe's personal friend.
Taylor warned that if Sierra Leone continued to allow its ports and airports to be used to bring ECOMOG forces into Liberia, he would retaliate. The NPFL invaded Sierra Leone in March 1991 and started the rebellion that eventually brought down President Joseph Momoh.
In Guinea, ULIMO trains its rebels along Liberia's eastern border. Also, the Mandingo tribe that Taylor targeted along with Doe's Krahns during the war are Muslims of Guinean extraction.
Two other countries, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, also factor into the Liberia equation. Liberia's interim president, Amos Sawyer, has alleged that they continue to arm Taylor. Ivorian President Felix Houphouet-Boigny and Burkina Faso's President Blaise Campaore - who has admitted he sent 400 soldiers to fight alongside Taylor during the civil war, have pledged to cut off all shipments of weapons to Liberia.
ULIMO has threatened to invade Ivory Coast unless it stops letting arms through its border.
Following eyewitness reports last month that the NPFL massacred dozens of people while pursuing ULIMO, the interim government urged ECOWAS to jump-start the peace process.
"It's very embarrassing for us as Liberians," says Lamini Waritay, information minister for the interim government. "This is an excellent opportunity for the sub-region to tackle the problems of the sub-region. But Mr. Taylor and the NPFL have taken it upon themselves to embark on a systematic program of discrediting ECOMOG."