Foreigners evacuated in fight for control of Monrovia

By Michael Peel in Lagos
Published: June 10 2003 5:00 | Last Updated: June 10 2003 5:00

French special forces evacuated foreign nationals from Liberia yesterday as troops loyal to President Charles Taylor fought rebels for control of Monrovia, the besieged capital.

The United Nations Security Council last night met in closed session to discuss the conflict, as Monrovia residents joined tens of thousands of refugees from camps outside the city seeking refuge from the fighting.

The rebels' progress has raised concerns about Liberia's future in the event of the overthrow of Mr Taylor, who is blamed internationally for fuelling instability in the surrounding region.

International observers said the absence of a clear alternative government-in-waiting risked contributing to further instability in an area already policed by troops from the UN, France and Britain.

"Internationally, there is a clear-cut regime change agenda," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa division at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs. "But there is no clear thinking of what happens afterwards."

French military helicopters began a joint US-European Union co-ordinated operation to transfer up to 500 expatriates, including Americans, Europeans, Indians and Africans, to a French navy ship moored offshore.

The airlifts come after advances in the past week by the main rebel force, known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd), which has been fighting Mr Taylor for several years. At the weekend the Lurd reportedly gave the president an ultimatum to step down within 72 hours.

The rebel advance has unfolded against a background of increasingly forthright international criticism of Mr Taylor, who won an election in 1997 after emerging as the leading warlord in the country's civil war.

The UN Security Council last month renewed economic and political sanctions against Liberia while Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, called openly for Mr Taylor to be forced from office.

David Crane, special prosecutor of a UN-mandated special court in Sierra Leone, added to the pressure last week when he announced the indictment of Mr Taylor over crimes against humanity and other offences allegedly committed during Sierra Leone's brutal 10-year civil war.

International observers say part of the problem in stabilising Liberia and surrounding countries is the internecine conflict that has developed in the region, in part because of Mr Taylor's aggression in neighbouring countries such as Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast.

Last month a report by a UN-appointed special panel on Liberia accused Guinea of supporting the Lurd rebels, although the Guinean government denies this. The Ivorian government has denied similar allegations that it has supported a second rebel group active in Liberia's east.

A second threat posed to regional stability by Mr Taylor's removal is that Liberia has little tradition of organised democratic governance.