Liberia’s rebels, many of them teenagers armed with machine guns, fought furious street battles Saturday, shattering hopes that the evacuation of warlord Roosevelt Johnson would spur moves toward peace.
The fresh violence came one day after U.S. Marines airlifted Johnson to Ghana for peace talks. But archrival Charles Taylor vowed not to abandon his forces to attend the talks. And Johnson’s men continued to fight without him.
The warfare was the worst since a 10-day cease-fire crumbled on Monday. Two main bridges leading into the West African city were under heavy fire. Taylor’s forces repeatedly shelled the military barracks that Johnson had seized and occupied for the last month.
“The fighting now going on is intended to diminish the ability of Johnson’s men to make war,” Taylor said at his headquarters in the suburb of Congo Town.
Taylor said he had no intention of joining Johnson in Accra, Ghana, for talks to begin Wednesday on ending the six-year-old Liberian war. “I welcome the process to have General Johnson evacuated and hope that the electoral process will go on as planned in August this year,” he said.
Taylor recently aligned his forces with warlord Alhaji Kromah, once a bitter rival. Both men sit on Liberia’s governing council, which was seated Sept. 1 after international mediators brokered country’s 13th peace accord in six years of civil war.
The council was designed to prepare Liberia for elections by August. Taylor said the council’s civilian chairman, Wilton Sankawulo, would represent Liberia at the peace talks.
The U.S. State Department said Saturday that the failure of any faction leader to attend the peace talks would be regarded as “evidence of an unwillingness to support the peace process.” The White House is sending U.S. special envoy Dane Smith to attend the talks in Ghana.
Johnson, who had been barricaded in the military barracks since April 6, was hustled in an armored convoy to the U.S. Embassy on Friday. A U.S. helicopters flew him to neighboring Sierra Leone and onto Accra later that night.
It was unclear whether Johnson considered his departure a surrender or whether he planned to return to Monrovia after the peace talks.
Johnson’s evacuation was the outcome of two days of diplomatic efforts involving U.N., U.S., and peacekeeping officials.
A truce negotiated on April 19 collapsed 10 days later. Efforts to start peace talks increased in urgency after Taylor on Thursday vowed an all-out assault on Johnson.
Tens of thousands of Liberians were fleeing the city and its outlying suburbs on Saturday, heading for rural areas already plagued by disease and serious shortages of food and medicine.
Thousands of other Liberians rushed to board ships that were leaving Monrovia and charging high prices for passage out of embattled capital.
The State Department on Saturday warned Taylor and Kromah against attempting to seize control of Liberia.
“Any factional leader who refuses to pay heed to the pleas of the Liberian people for peace or to respond to the call of the international community to stop the wanton fighting and killing, will be barred entry to the United States,” the statement said.
Johnson, a former Cabinet minister, was fired by the government and charged with murder in connection with clashes in March that violated an August 1995 peace accord.
His refusal to surrender sparked fighting that quickly spread into a city-wide spree of looting, shelling and gunfire. The United States military began evacuating foreigners April 10, and by Friday about 2,100 people had been flown to neighboring countries.
The U.S. military on Saturday evacuated another 33 people to Freetown Saturday, including three Americans.
“The war was raging. You cannot cross either of the bridges to get to the Embassy because gunmen are in all of the high buildings shooting down at you,” said evacuee George Washington, a 61-year-old accountant who was reared in Liberia by American parents.
Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed in the latest outbreak of fighting in Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves in 1847.
The six-year war had already claimed the lives of more than 150,000 Liberians and forced half of the country’s 2.8 million people to flee their homes.