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Liberia: Panic on the streets

There are international calls for more troops to be sent to Liberia.
There are international calls for more troops to be sent to Liberia.

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Liberians dropped dead bodies outside the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia as fighting between rebels and government troops continued. CNN's Jeff Koinange reports (July 22)
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MONROVIA, Liberia (CNN) -- At least 50 people have been killed as fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Charles Taylor intensified in the Liberian capital Monrovia.

Mortar shells and small arms fire engulfed the city Monday. A shell hit a house in one neighborhood, killing 18 people inside, emergency workers at the scene said.

Another 27 Liberians were killed in other attacks, hospital officials said.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on the international community -- including the United States -- to decide "urgently and promptly" to send more troops to Liberia.

"Liberia today is poised between hope and disaster," Annan said.

A senior Bush administration official said no decision has been made on whether to dispatch U.S. troops to aid a West African peacekeeping mission in Liberia.

The Pentagon has ordered a three-ship task force led by the amphibious assault carrier USS Iwo Jima to the Mediterranean from the Horn of Africa.

But Defense Department sources said the task force -- which carries about 2,000 Marines and 2,500 sailors -- does not have direct orders to go to Liberia.

A Liberian diplomat in Washington told CNN that civilians were "dying in the hundreds," and residents of the chaotic capital had begun stacking the bodies of the dead in front of the U.S. Embassy.

CNN's Jeff Koinange described the situation as "extremely dangerous" and "very fluid."

"Monrovia is in a panic right now -- it is completely paralyzed," he said.

A U.S. Marine anti-terrorist team, meanwhile, arrived Monday at the U.S. Embassy to beef up security. Five people were reported dead near the embassy as fighting raged.

At least a dozen mortars were fired at the embassy compound. The U.S. Navy said one mortar round had hit the embassy's general store. Two Liberian policemen were injured when a mortar hit a building outside the embassy, U.S. officials said.

Small-arms fire also erupted outside the embassy. Officials also said a hospital known as the JFK Hospital was being shelled, and patients there -- including Patrick Robert, a photographer on assignment for Time magazine who was shot during fighting Saturday -- had been moved to an inner compound considered safer.

U.S. marines arrive to protect U.S. Embassy in Monrovia
U.S. marines arrive to protect U.S. Embassy in Monrovia

Pentagon sources in Washington said 23 Americans -- four members of a humanitarian assistance team and 19 civilians -- were evacuated from the embassy by helicopter earlier Monday.

The status of the battle -- rebels pushing toward Monrovia's center trying to force out President Taylor -- was unclear, but government forces said they controlled the road to the capital's airport.

The embattled president promised to fight on and insisted he would not leave the country before international peacekeepers arrive.

The international humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres said Monday it was treating nearly 80 severely wounded civilians at two makeshift hospitals in Monrovia. A staff member was killed Sunday, the agency said, when a mortar slammed into his home.

"Shooting and shelling close to our hospitals is making it nearly impossible for us to treat our patients safely," said Alain Kassa, the agency's head of mission in Monrovia.

"[Sunday] a bullet landed in the middle of our hospital's pediatric ward even as war wounded civilians continued to arrive. [Monday] we fear the fighting in the streets is so intense that the wounded cannot be transported to the hospital for treatment."

Peace talks in the Liberian conflict have been taking place in Accra, Ghana, where a cease-fire was signed June 17. But the rebels launched another assault on the capital when Taylor, who agreed to step down as part of the agreement, refused to leave the country immediately.

U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful and civil rights activist Al Sharpton met Sunday in Ghana with Taylor representatives and members of the main rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

"We hope to appeal to all sides to try and have some type of truce or cease-fire," Sharpton said. "We are not on either side. We are on the side of getting help for the children -- medical care as well for those that have been displaced."

Taylor's forces vowed Monday to battle to the death and recapture lost ground as rebels advanced rapidly through the streets.

"It may be the last battle for them. It may be the late battle for us," army chief of staff Gen. Benjamin Yeaten told Reuters. "I myself have decided to involve myself in the battle to defend this sovereign country and my own life. Nobody retreats and nobody surrenders. This is a battle for survival."

After Taylor promised to leave office in June, the rebels signed a cease-fire aimed at ending their 3-year-old uprising, the latest episode in 14 years of almost continuous civil war that has seen an estimated 250,000 people killed. Fighting renewed when Taylor would not set a date for his departure.

On July 6, Taylor accepted an offer of asylum from Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who said he would shield him from war crimes charges -- but only if Taylor remained out of Liberian politics. President Bush has called on Taylor to step aside immediately.

The United States has long ties to Liberia, which was settled by freed American slaves in 1822.

Bush has promised to support the 1,500 U.N. peacekeepers, Economic Community of West African States said it intends to send to Liberia, but so far he has not decided whether that support would involve U.S. troops.

-- Producer Gaven Morris and Correspondents Jeff Koinange and Chris Plante contributed to this report.

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