Liberia: Fighting escalates as government tries to retake Gbarnga

MONROVIA, 24 March (IRIN) - Fighting escalated in central Liberia over the weekend as government forces attempted to retake Gbarnga, provincial capital of Bong County, from the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). Defence minister Daniel Chea had ordered loyalist troops on Friday to observe a 48-hour ceasefire to allow civilians to leave the area.
In a hurriedly arranged news conference on Friday evening, Chea reported the capture of Gbarnga following what he called "a fierce battle". He said LURD had made a "tactical mistake" and vowed to launch a counter offensive against the rebels. "Those terrorists will regret their stay in Gbarnga," he told reporters in the capital, Monrovia.

Large numbers of government troops were seen heading towards Gbarnga, 150 km north of Monrovia, on Saturday. Residents of the town and surrounding areas had fled since early last week to Monrovia and Totota. Others had gone to Ganta, 55 km north of Gbarnga on the Guinean border, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Saturday. Displaced people continued to arrive in Totota, 50 km south east of Gbarnga where an estimated 42,000 IDPs mainly from Lofa and upper Bong counties were being assisted mainly in four camps.

"These camps are overwhelmed by the new influxes and aid agencies are constructing new reception centres in a bid to accommodate the new arrivals. As of 18 March, 6,480 persons have been registered in camps," OCHA said in a situation report. "Most of them are from the former camp of TV Tower and a few from Cari camps [a few kilometres outside Gbarnga] and are in possession of ration cards. Estimated 4,000 persons arrived in the camps of Totota without ration cards. They are mainly from Gbarnga and surrounding villages and their numbers are increasing."

Humanitarian agencies, OCHA said, were also worried about an estimated 30,000 people in the border town of Ganta which was now not accessible from Gbarnga. "If the fighting in Gbarnga spreads north, this population may flee to Guinea or east towards Sacleapea refugee camp (45 km away) where an estimated 1,000 Ivorian refugees and third-country nationals are being accommodated."

Gbarnga was once a headquarters of the former National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a fighting group led by Charles Taylor before he became president. The town has been a strategic military and political stronghold of the government. It links Monrovia to the Guinean and Cote d'Ivoire borders. Captured by LURD in May 2002, it was later retaken by government


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