Thousands flee as rebels increase attacks in Liberia

May 15, 2002

Rebels in Liberia have escalated their attacks and are near the capital of Monrovia, sending thousands of people fleeing into camps outside the city, already crowded with people fleeing fighting in the countryside, according to news reports. Cuttington University College, operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Liberia, was evacuated but other schools are operating and churches have remained open.

Reuters reported May 15 that an 'uneasy calm' had settled over the capital, replacing the earlier panic, as government troops held the rebels at bay on the outskirts of the city.

The rebels have formed a loose coalition comprised of those who were defeated in the country's ruinous seven-year civil war that ended in 1996 with the election a year later of a former rebel, Charles Taylor, as president. The United Nations initiated an arms embargo a year ago, charging that Taylor has been supporting rebels in Sierra Leone and other central African countries.

Reliable reports indicate that the rebels, who have been operating from bases in neighboring Guinea, have taken the city of Gbarnga, 110 miles north of Monrovia and near Cuttington. The city served as Taylor's base during the civil war. United Nations officials said that, if the situation gets any worse, it could create 40-50,000 displaced people.

Gyude Bryant, chair of the diocesan council, reported in a phone call with Margaret Larom of the Anglican and Global Relations Office, that everyone on the staff of the churches and schools in Monrovia is safe but that the situation has been 'quite nerve-wracking.' Like other residents of the capital, church members felt a 'serious scare' as the rebels were reported within 20 miles of the city. Bishop Edward Neufville was monitoring the situation from his offices in downtown Monrovia.

Reports from Cuttington and Phebe Hospital, across the road, are not good. Diplomatic sources indicate that the hospital has been looted and perhaps the college, too, Bryant said. The government sent buses to evacuate the students from the campus on Tuesday, May 8, preventing them from taking their final exams. The first class to graduate since the campus was abandoned and heavily damaged during the civil war in the 1990s was set to graduate this summer but those plans might have to be postponed until church leaders can assess the damage. With help from international aid agencies, including Episcopal Relief and Development, the college has been reconstructing much of its campus.

While the situation remains unpredictable, Bryant said in the interview that St. Augustine's School in Kakata and B.W. Harris High School in Monrovia were still open and renovations to schools in Cape Mount and Bromley continue despite fighting in the area. He also confirmed reports that the rebels had taken the city of Gbarnga but added that the government forces were attempting to retake the city. He did not know how soon it would be possible to determine the damage at the college.

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