Liberia

Liberia: Civilians flee key central town

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MONROVIA, 17 March (IRIN) - An exodus of civilians from the central Liberian town of Gbarnga, 150 km north of the capital, Monrovia, began on Sunday as clashes intensified in nearby Gbalatua between government forces and Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels.
The exodus caused panic among other civilians in Kakata, the provincial headquarters of Margibi County on the Gbarnga-Monrovia highway, fleeing civilians told IRIN. Several roadblocks, they said, had been mounted by government soldiers on the highway to screen the displaced civilians. Several vehicles carrying heavily armed soldiers headed towards Gbarnga from Monrovia.

At Monrovia's Paynesville and Red Light suburbs, some of the displaced said they heard heavy artillery fire as they fled, and that it had sounded nearby. The displaced included students from a Roman catholic minor seminary and health workers from Phebe Hospital, the only referral health institution in the area.

They told IRIN on Monday that many of them had walked the whole distance after failing to get scarce public transport. A driver who usually travels on the route said commercial vehicles could not reach Gbarnga due to the "confusing situation" there.

Gbarnga has been a military and political stronghold of President Charles Taylor. It was captured by the LURD in May 2002 but retaken by government soldiers within a month. The LURD have since been trying to recapture it again.

Meanwhile, the Liberian government has asked its defence ministry to expand a team that is to investigate the circumstances surrounding the deaths of three aid workers of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) during a recent attack on Toe Town, near the Ivorian border. The government blamed the attack on Liberian mercenaries from nearby Cote d'Ivoire.

The dead aid workers included Emmanuel Sharpolu and Musa Kita, Liberian nationals, and Kaare Lund of Norway. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week demanded a full inquiry into their deaths.

Representatives of the European Union, the UN system in Liberia, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, the National Bar Association and the Female Lawyers Association of Liberia are to be included on the team, a government statement said.

[ENDS]

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