Chaos, Killing Rock Capital of Liberia

Times Staff Writer

Mortar shells rained down on this coastal capital Monday, killing and maiming scores of civilians as a small force of U.S. Marines arrived to bolster security at the besieged U.S. Embassy.

Several thousand more Marines were ordered to the Mediterranean for possible deployment in the war-ravaged West African nation.

The exact death toll Monday was unknown, but aid workers estimated that at least 90 Liberians were killed and said the number probably would rise. More than 300 people were injured.


Heavy explosions from shells and grenades rocked the city from midday into the evening as rebels battled government forces, sending terrified civilians scrambling for cover in doorways and damaged buildings. After one shell hit an American housing complex now occupied by refugees, angry residents stacked at least 18 mutilated bodies outside the main gate of the nearby U.S. Embassy.

“G. Bush Killer Liberia,” read a sign scrawled on a piece of cardboard and hoisted by a young man outside the embassy. Other screaming citizens hurled rocks and stones at the walls of the fortified concrete compound.

“What do we do now?” wailed Porpor Conneh as she banged her fists on one of the embassy gates. “O God, O God. We’re just suffering. We can’t die for nothing.”

Many Liberians blame the U.S. for not stepping in to end the recent carnage in their country, which was settled in 1822 by freed American slaves. The White House is still considering whether to deploy U.S. troops to support West African nations that have pledged to send a peacekeeping force to help end 14 years of civil war in Liberia.

“The continuous delay of the international community [to send troops] is a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Nathaniel Kollie, 40, who fled his home on the outskirts of town more than a week ago.

President Bush said Monday that the U.S. was monitoring the situation “very closely.”

“We’re working with the United Nations to effect policy necessary to get the cease-fire back in place. We are working with [West African nations] to determine when they will be prepared to move in the peacekeeper troops that I have said we’ll be willing to help move in to Liberia,” Bush said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon over the weekend ordered an Amphibious Ready Group, led by the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima and carrying some 4,500 Marines and sailors, to head from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean to be ready if the White House decides to commit troops to Liberia, according to Navy Lt. Daniel Hetlage, a Pentagon spokesman.

The ships are still several days from the Mediterranean, and the orders signed Saturday do not direct them to head toward Gibraltar. From the Mediterranean, the journey is seven to 10 days to West Africa -- putting the troops nearly two weeks away.

The Bush administration has demanded that Charles Taylor, Liberia’s warlord-turned-president, resign and leave the country before peacekeepers are deployed. Taylor has accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria, but he has refused to leave until peacekeepers arrive. On Saturday, he vowed to “fight street to street, house to house” until the rebels are defeated.

The rebel force is a collection of militia fighters and former soldiers whose only stated goal is to oust Taylor. They have said the assault on Monrovia is designed to put pressure on him to exit.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman called on both sides in the conflict to honor their commitment to the June 17 cease-fire. But he had particularly hard words for the rebels, condemning their “reckless and indiscriminate shelling” in Monrovia.

“If we’re to trust them in the future to participate in the democratic governance of Liberia, we need to be able to see them keep their commitments now,” Philip T. Reeker said. “They need to think about the plight of the civilian population and the humanitarian workers who are there to alleviate suffering.”

Witnesses in Monrovia described Monday how body parts lay strewn in the street after the intense bombardment. Some of the injured were put into wheelbarrows and taken out of the line of fire; others were toted in blankets used as makeshift stretchers.

Many streets remained empty as large numbers of people crammed into churches, schools and the grounds of tenement buildings. The iron shutters of most stores were padlocked or welded closed.

U.S. officials said one mortar shell hit the embassy compound’s commissary. The damage was unknown and there were no reports of injuries. At least 40 people, including journalists and relief workers, huddled in a hallway on the first floor of the embassy’s administrative building as shells thudded in the surrounding area.

Until Monday, U.S. officials said, the embassy had not taken a direct hit, although several bullets had strayed into the compound and many shells had fallen nearby.

Two Liberian security staffers employed to guard the embassy’s Greystone housing complex, where the refugees were gathered, were injured.

Seventh-grader Lasana Harding died after shrapnel from a mortar ripped through the side of his head. He lay clutching a white plastic bag filled with potato greens. Witnesses said he had been on his way home from the market, crossing the grounds of an old public hospital just yards from the popular Mamba Point Hotel, where several Lebanese businessmen and foreign reporters have taken shelter. Several shells fell in the vicinity of the hotel Monday.

The blast that killed Harding also tore through the right leg of a middle-aged passerby. He lost consciousness as he was being carried on a nylon mat to the compound of the international relief group Doctors Without Borders, about 200 yards away. Scores of panicked citizens hugged the walls of buildings and ducked in and out of doorways as they frantically sought safety.

An American journalist on assignment for Newsweek, Tom Masland, was slightly injured by shrapnel when a mortar shell landed near the parked vehicle he was in, not far from a fierce street battle.

At the city’s central John F. Kennedy Hospital, doctors were forced to move their outdoor medical triage inside, as shells smashed into the sidewalks leading to the facility.

Before the onslaught intensified, Marines of the Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team began to arrive at the U.S. Embassy’s ocean-view helipad, amid driving rain, aboard three Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters.

An unknown number of the 41 Marines, who had been expected to fly in from Freetown in neighboring Sierra Leone, managed to get in before shelling near the embassy forced the flights to be suspended. The Marines are expected to augment a military assessment team here for the last two weeks and to provide extra security to the embassy.

“The situation in Monrovia has become unstable enough to warrant the remainder of them coming,” said U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Terrence Dudley. “This is strictly to make sure that the embassy compound remains secure.”

Before the arrival of the Marines, Dudley said the embassy had not come under attack and he did not expect that to happen.

The helicopters that ferried in the Marines were used to evacuate between 20 and 25 foreign nationals, including several aid workers, two journalists and an embassy staffer. The evacuees were taken to Freetown, about an hour’s flight away.

“It’s just unbelievably frustrating,” said Eleanor Mondiot, relief coordinator for the international relief group World Vision, as she waited near the helipad to be evacuated. “I’m not leaving because we’re scared or frightened. I’m leaving because we are absolutely not able to do anything. My hope is that we will be able to come back at the end of the week.”

As the evacuation began, angry residents, thousands of whom have sought safety in the vicinity of the embassy compound in recent weeks, accused the Bush administration of forsaking them.

“We know that America is our big brother, but it seems they have no interest in us anymore,” said Alfred Davis, 21, who fled from his home on the outskirts of the capital for shelter near the compound.

“It’s not fair,” 28-year-old gas station attendant Osman Kamara said. “We feel [the U.S. government] should send troops to help take care of the security situation. There are many people dying, innocent civilians.”

Dudley, the Navy spokesman, said the fact that the embassy had remained opened during showed that the U.S. had not abandoned Liberia. The embassies of several other Western nations have long been closed.

“The message is clear that the Americans are beefing up their security in Monrovia so that we can remain in Monrovia under these hostile conditions,” Dudley said. “That in itself is an indication of the commitment that the United States is showing to the people of Liberia.”

Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.