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100s dead in Liberia rebel push

Thousands of Liberians are now trying to flee from the capital.
Thousands of Liberians are now trying to flee from the capital.

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MONROVIA, Liberia -- Liberians were clearing the dead from streets of downtown Monrovia Thursday as rebels intent on overthrowing the government of President Charles Taylor ringed the city.

Liberia's information minister said more than 200 people had been killed as rebel forces fought their way toward the heart of the capital.

Information Minister Reginald Goodridge said the rebels had come from Sierra Leone "and other areas supplied by the United States and Britain with heavy weaponry."

He called on the U.S. to condemn the aggression and said the Liberian government wants to return to the peace process and bring about a political solution to the problem.

He said local residents had taken the bodies of four Liberians killed in the fighting and had displayed them in front of the U.S. Embassy as a protest against Washington's help for the rebels.

In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush called for Taylor to step down.

"The United States supports the cease-fire signed earlier this month," Bush said in remarks to African leaders. "President Taylor needs to step down so that his country can be spared further bloodshed."

There were rumors Wednesday that Taylor had fled, but he went on state radio to announce he was still in power and was going to "fight to the bitter end."

The heavy fighting, which effectively smashed the recently signed cease-fire, could be the final and decisive battle in a three-year-old rebel attempt to oust Taylor and his government.

Goodridge said the well-armed rebels are firing indiscriminately and are shelling several areas of Monrovia, a city of 1.5 million people. Military vehicles moved up and down the streets as soldiers clashed with rebel fighters.

Jordi Raich, of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told CNN thousands of refugees had fled from the fighting.

"It is a fairly small area which had no running water or electricity before."

He added the local hospital was working around the clock in an attempt to deal with the injured, many suffering from rocket shrapnel wounds.

About 300 casualties had been brought to the hospital, with medical staff carrying out between 25 and 30 operations per day.

A U.S. State Department official in Washington said two rocket-propelled grenades hit the Greystone compound across from the U.S. Embassy, killing several Liberians. The compound is an annex of the embassy.

A wounded man is carried away from the U.S. compound after the attack.
A wounded man is carried away from the U.S. compound after the attack.

Spokeswoman Brooke Summers said the dead included some local residents who had taken refuge there, a Liberian guard and a gardener who were employed by the embassy.

"We deeply regret this senseless loss of life," Summers said, adding that the State Department "calls on all parties to honor the cease-fire" signed earlier this month in Ghana.

The U.S. Embassy in Monrovia is in contact with the remaining U.S. citizens in Liberia to inform them of the latest developments on safety and security, Summers said.

Another State Department official said the explosion appeared to be a stray round from the ongoing fighting in the city.

Goodridge, talking about the casualties, told CNN: "The infrastructure is clearly not able to cope with this catastrophe, and the Liberian government needs all the international help, humanitarian help, it can get."

An international monitoring team had been due to arrive by next Monday to oversee the cease-fire brokered June 17. That cease-fire, it appears, never took hold.

Thousands of Liberians, who had come to the capital in the mistaken belief it would be safe, were fleeing in hordes toward the airport 40 miles west of the city.

Local journalist Alfonso Toweh, told CNN, civilians just "wanted an end to hostilities....the situation is desperate."

Earlier this month, the State Department ordered all non-essential U.S. Embassy personnel and their families to leave the country due to the security situation.

It also issued a travel warning for the country, urging Americans to defer travel to the country and recommending that U.S. citizens in the country to leave immediately.

-- CNN Correspondent Jeff Koinange and State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report


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