Liberian army pushes rebels back from capital

By Alphonso Toweh
MONROVIA, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor have pushed rebels away from the West African nation's capital, but there is still fighting northwest of Monrovia, a military official said Thursday.

The official, who declined to give his name, said the two sides were battling around Tubmanburg, a key mining town some 60 km (38 miles) from the coastal city.

Rebels had pushed toward Monrovia on Tuesday, advancing to within just 12 km (eight miles) of the city amid fierce fighting around Po River Bridge. But the army held off that offensive, and the official said they intended to pursue the insurgents.

"They sustained more casualties in last night's fighting and we will ensure that they do not sit there," the official said. There was no immediate official confirmation of the fighting.

The fighting at Po River Bridge was as close as the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) have come to Monrovia since launching their uprising in 2000 to oust President Taylor.

Some Western diplomats say they believe Liberian armed forces sometimes fake attacks to allow them to loot and spread fear, helping to maintain their positions.

Taylor said Wednesday he would never relinquish office in the face of violence. The former warlord came to power in a 1997 poll after waging a bloody seven-year civil war. He is due to stand for re-election this year.

In a speech to the nation, Taylor also said he had opened a "channel of communication" with the rebels and that ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) was prepared to mediate at peace talks in Mali.

Behind the war are battles for control over diamonds, gold and timber as well as deep-seated tribal enmities. The fighting has also kindled a swirling regional conflict that has seeped into Sierra Leone, Guinea and neighbouring Ivory Coast.

Liberia is under United Nations sanctions, including an arms embargo, for aiding Sierra Leone's rebels in return for diamonds. Hundreds of Liberians are also fighting with rebels in Ivory Coast.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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