By Alphonso Toweh
MONROVIA (Reuters) - Rebels fighting to oust Liberian President Charles Taylor have seized a key coastal town northwest of the West African nation's capital, military officials and fleeing residents said on Thursday.
It is the first time the rebels, who launched their uprising in 2000, have captured Robertsport, 78 km (49 miles) up the coast from the capital Monrovia and close to the border with Sierra Leone.
"The rebels entered Robertsport on Wednesday morning ...They came in their numbers," said one resident, who had fled the town and was taking shelter in Monrovia.
Dozens of terrified residents have left Robertsport, fleeing by ferry to Monrovia. Fighting between the shadowy rebels and Taylor's troops regularly prompts mass movements of fearful residents.
A military official, who declined to be named, said the rebels, who call themselves Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), had seized Robertsport after forcing fishermen to take them into the town, which is on a peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean.
Rebels could not immediately be reached for comment.
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 both sides carrying out atrocities.
LURD rebels fought to within 12 km (eight miles) of the outskirts of Monrovia earlier this month, reaching the key Po River Bridge, but were pushed back by government forces.
Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the mid-19th century, but its years of strife have turned what used to be one of the impoverished region's wealthier countries into a source of instability.
Military officials also said on Thursday there were clashes between government forces and LURD rebels in eastern Liberia, near the border with Ivory Coast, itself divided by a five-month civil war.
Three rebel factions are battling to oust Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo, and have seized the north and large parts of the west near the border with Liberia.
Liberian fighters, notorious for their brutality and lack of discipline, have joined rebel ranks in the anarchic border zone between the two countries. Rebels also say that pro-Gbagbo troops have hired Liberian mercenaries.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet