MONROVIA, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Rebels fighting to oust Liberian President Charles Taylor are battling government troops on four fronts, the West African nation's defence minister said Tuesday.
"As I speak to you presently, there is fighting taking place on four different fronts; Tubmanburg, Gba ..., in and around Zorzor and around the Kolahun area," Daniel Chea told reporters.
Tubmanburg, an iron-ore mining town, is 60 km (38 miles) north of the capital Monrovia, while Gba is just 38 kms (24 miles) away. Kolahun is in the remote north and Zorzor is near the northern border with Guinea.
Chea said the rebels, who call themselves Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), intensified their attacks two weeks ago and pushed towards Tubmanburg. He did not give any details of casualties from the recent fighting.
FLEEING TO SIERRA LEONE
Taylor, a former warlord, emerged victorious after a brutal seven-year civil war in the 1990s and was elected president in 1997. Around 200,000 people were killed in the war, which became a byword for brutality with all sides carrying out atrocities.
LURD rebels launched their uprising against him in 2000 and earlier this month came to within 12 km (eight miles) of the outskirts of Monrovia. They were pushed back at the key Po River Bridge by government forces.
Some Western diplomats say they believe Liberian armed forces, often made up of private pro-Taylor militaias, sometimes fake rebel attacks to allow them to loot and spread fear.
Taylor is under U.N. sanctions for fuelling instability in neighbouring Sierra Leone, where a 10-year civil war officially ended in January last year.
Fighting moved closer to Liberia's border with Sierra Leone last week when LURD rebels captured the town of Robertsport. Chea said the rebels were quickly pushed back out of the town.
Sierra Leone's Chief of Defence Staff Tom Carew, who travelled recently to the border area, said on Tuesday he had warned Liberian rebels to stay on their side of the frontier.
"I told the commanders and other ranks of the LURD, who were heavily armed, that now that they control that area, they should stay in their area and not cross into Sierra Leone to cause any trouble to civilians" he told Reuters in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
"If they do, Sierra Leone troops deployed on the border will waste no time acting on them robustly," he added.
On Tuesday, the United Nations Refugee Agency said fighting in Liberia in the past week had prompted 30,000 people to flee their homes and head for Monrovia.
Another 6,000 Liberians had crossed into Sierra Leone, Peter Kessler, spokesman for the UNHCR said in Geneva.
Defence Minister Chea had harsh words for his own soldiers, whom he accused of firing into the air in Monrovia.
"While all of this is going on, it is unfortunate that most of our soldiers who should be on the fronts are in Monrovia, carrying out random firing both during day and night hours. This is a waste of ammunition," he said.
He said anyone caught discharging firearms illegally in the coastal capital would receive a minimum punishment of 12 months imprisonment in the stockade.
(Additional reporting by Christo Johnson in Freetown)
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