Liberia's Rebel Leaders Call for Cease-Fire; Deaths Climb

Times Staff Writer

Rebel leaders outside Liberia called on their soldiers Tuesday to stop a blistering onslaught on this war-torn capital as senior West African officials met, seeking a way to deploy peacekeepers.

Despite the call for a cease-fire, sporadic gunfire and shelling continued throughout the day and night. The civilian death toll from three days of fighting between the rebels and the government of President Charles Taylor climbed to at least 120, according to humanitarian groups. Government officials put the number of fatalities at 600.

Leaders of the rebel movement Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, said it would take time for the cease-fire to be heeded.

"Yes, we did call for a cease-fire, but it's going to take some time for the orders to trickle down," said LURD military advisor Gen. Joe Wylie, who spoke by phone from the Ghanaian capital, Accra, where he was taking part in peace talks. "It's not a soccer game where when the game ends, everybody stops. This is war."

West African defense officials met in Senegal to discuss sending troops, but regional leaders have made it clear that no soldiers would be dispatched without an end to the fighting, the latest chapter in Liberia's 14-year civil war. The rebels have said their aim is to oust Taylor.

"We have to stop the shooting so that the peacekeepers can come in," Wylie said.

The Bush administration has said it would consider deploying U.S. troops only after Taylor stepped down. About 4,500 Marines and sailors were dispatched to the Mediterranean on Monday, but Liberians complained that the potential help was still too far away for comfort.

"Mediterranean? Is that where the fighting is going on?" asked Ernest Jackson, 23. "The fighting is going on here in Monrovia, Liberia, to be specific. And it's very, very dangerous, so they must come. We need them in Liberia. If they don't know the way, they can call me and I'll direct them here."

Reports spread Monday that Taylor would leave the country today. But rebel leaders said that wasn't true.

"It's a rumor," Wylie said. Taylor is "a man with many tongues and many voices. So when he says he is leaving, you can't always believe him."

"The sooner he leaves, the better off he will be," he added.

Wylie said that if the rebels caught Taylor, they would hand him over to the United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal that has charged the president with helping fuel Sierra Leone's brutal 10-year civil war.

Taylor, who has accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria, has insisted that he will leave once peacekeepers arrive. He also said he first wanted to bury his mother, Zoe, who died last month.

On Tuesday, Zoe Taylor was buried as a military band played. Her son arrived at the funeral dressed in a trademark white safari suit adorned with a green sash. He cried softly at the Baptist church as he stood before her coffin covered with bouquets of lilies that read, "Love" and "Peace."

A paper program featuring pictures of Taylor with his mother and other family members was distributed to the mourners as they entered the church.

The pews were filled with more than 200 people, men in suits and women wearing dresses and head wraps mainly of mauve or white -- the typical colors of funeral dress here.

Priscilla Coke-Sumo, niece of the deceased, said her aunt hated the color black. She described the matron as "a caring woman who loved farming."

A robed choir sat ready to intone Zoe Taylor's favorite hymns, including one titled "How Tedious and Tasteless the Hour."

The scene at the church stood in stark contrast to the misery and destruction elsewhere in the city.

Many of the 30,000 displaced people who have found shelter under the stands in the city's main football stadium were forced to flee the arena after a storm of shells began to pound the neighborhood. They later returned.

Eighteen bodies that had been stacked outside the U.S. Embassy after the victims were killed Monday in a barrage of mortar shells were bundled in large plastic sheets and carried to the nearby beachfront to be temporarily buried in group graves.

Alfa Yaseweyeh arrived at the reddish sand in the pouring rain, searching for his 22-year-old son, Moduray, who was among those killed.

Wrapping the young man's body in a sheet that he decorated with green vines plucked nearby, Yaseweyeh asked the gravediggers to place the body in a separate pit. Saying a prayer over the site with four of his other sons, he placed a single stick at the head of the grave.

At the housing-complex-turned-hospital of the Belgian branch of the relief agency Doctors Without Borders, civilians -- dozens of women and children among them -- lay on blankets on concrete floors or on cots in rooms that were recently offices and bedrooms. Some nursed gunshot wounds; others writhed in pain from injuries inflicted by shrapnel blasted from mortar shells and grenades.

The aid group received 82 wounded civilians at its compound Monday; on Tuesday almost 30 arrived.

One surgeon, helped by two doctors and several nurses, had been working almost around the clock trying to save lives, said Dr. Hani Khalifa. Few of the medical personnel were getting more than three hours of sleep a night.

Twelve major surgeries were performed Monday, Khalifa said, including on a pregnant woman who had a bullet lodged in her side. The hospital's blood supply has been depleted to just five or six pints.

Too terrified to leave, relatives of the victims had also jammed the compound, sleeping on floors or on mattresses under tents.

"It's overcrowded," said Khalifa, who estimated that the complex was now providing shelter to 300 people, including the staff members of the relief group.

"Because of the insecurity outside the compound, whenever you discharge a patient, they can't leave," he said. "This is one of the difficulties we are facing, because we cannot empty the hospital.

"In a simple word, it's a mess," the doctor said.


Times staff photographer Carolyn Cole contributed to this report.

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