Americans, Europeans evacuate Liberia’s encircled capital
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — With rebel forces bearing down on the Liberian capital, French helicopters swooped in Monday to rescue more than 500 Americans, Europeans and other foreigners. Explosions sounded in the distance as fighting resumed on the outskirts of the besieged city.
Insurgents battling President Charles Taylor’s weakened government pushed several miles inside Monrovia’s western outskirts. American officials renewed calls for a cease-fire.
“We were going to stick it out, but it’s time to go,” Iddo Yodder, a gray-bearded Mennonite missionary from Lott, Texas, said as he was evacuated.
“It’s a very heavy feeling leaving all our Liberian friends behind, knowing what they have to endure,” said his wife, Viola Yodder. “All you can do is cry.”
Liberian forces and local radio reported more fighting on Monrovia’s west side as the evacuations began. Explosions sounded occasionally from that direction, subsiding at midday but picking up again at nightfall.
Officials prepared for the evacuation over the weekend, when rebels fighting Taylor since 1999 made two pushes into the capital, the only part of the West African nation he controls.
Foreigners and residents feared a bloody battle for Monrovia, a city of 1 million flooded by refugees. Government forces and rebel factions have repeatedly clashed in the city, killing thousands, since Liberia plunged into civil wars after Taylor launched a rebellion in 1989.
France’s U.N. Mission in New York said 535 people from 38 countries were evacuated from Liberia on Monday, including about 100 Americans. The French ship they were taken to was headed to Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
The French military provided much of the manpower and might for the evacuation from Liberia, a nation founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.
It is the second time in a year that France has orchestrated the speedy departure of foreigners from a West African nation sunken into chaos. French troops evacuated hundreds of foreigners — including many Americans — from Ivory Coast when insurgents launched a rebellion there last fall.
France has a heavy presence in West Africa, where there are many former French colonies. It took a lead role in Liberia in part because a French warship was off shore, American officials said.
U.S. Ambassador John Blaney stayed behind with a heavy American military presence.
Blaney urged all sides to lay down their weapons so peace talks that began last week in Ghana could proceed.
“It’s very important for all parties to have an unconditional cease-fire immediately,” he said. “Once we get the cease-fire, Liberia can formulate an orderly transition and bring this process under control.”
Liberians came out of their shacks and watched silently as the helicopters flew back and forth. Some headed to the U.S. Embassy, pleading for rescue from the United States, which many Liberians still see as their country’s big brother.
“When will you be helping us? We are terrified,” Marcus Kollie said as U.S. Marines manned sandbag bunkers on the embassy roof.
The first helicopters took off at dawn from the white-walled, barbed-wire topped compound of the European Union, where scores of foreigners gathered overnight.
Aid workers, ducking debris sent flying by the twirling blades, ran down a rocky hillside to get into the helicopters. French forces stood guard with heavy weapons on the fern- and palm-overgrown hillside, as the aircraft spun off over the Atlantic.
“We can’t work, and we had to leave,” said Isabelle de Bourning of the aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres said as she ran for a helicopter. “I hope it will be quick.”
Helicopters then touched down at the nearby U.S. Embassy compound to collect Americans and those with dual citizenship.
Children waiting at the embassy pressed their faces against the windows to watch the helicopters clattering in. A teenager sat slumped in a corner cradling her arm, which was wounded by a bullet.
Many Americans, including missionaries who have lived in Liberia for years, refused to leave. Others departed reluctantly.
Jody Scharfenorth of Amity, Ore., left behind 330 Liberian children she cared for at a Monrovia orphanage.
“The soldiers have already showed up at the door wanting them to help bury the dead and take care of the wounded,” she said. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
French reinforcements piled out of each helicopter that landed at the EU compound Monday. Soldiers in green camouflage jumped out with bazookas and heavy machine guns.
The European Union, which operates the water plants for the city, planned to keep a small staff in Liberia as long as possible, said David Parker, acting head of the EU mission.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed alarm at the fighting, which has displaced most of the 100,000 people living in camps on Monrovia’s western outskirts.
Pro-Taylor militiamen raced through the city in jeeps with mounted cannon and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Thousands of terrified civilians headed to the eastern suburbs.
In a bid to reassure the population, Taylor toured the city’s port, less than six miles from the fighting, in a heavily protected military convoy.
The rebels’ drive against Taylor gained momentum last week, when a joint U.N.-Sierra Leone court charged him with war crimes for allegedly aiding Sierra Leone rebels.
Talks between the Liberian government and two rebel groups had been scheduled to resume Monday. West African mediators postponed them until Wednesday so a delegation can head to Liberia to try to persuade both sides to lay down their weapons.