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Liberia clashes threaten peace plan

UN says troops confronted by militia forces

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Bodies of ex-government militiamen lay sprawled in the streets of Liberia's capital yesterday as UN peacekeepers confronted gunmen on a rampage of burning, shooting, and looting in Monrovia's bloodiest day since an August peace deal.

The violence, launched by militiamen loyal to ousted President Charles Taylor demanding cash to give up their guns, was the first serious threat to a UN-backed disarmament project. The fighting late Tuesday and early yesterday killed at least nine Liberians.

UN peacekeepers marked the first casualty of their 2 1/2-month-old Liberia mission, an officer from Benin shot in the leg as his troops tried to arrest militiamen, a UN military commander said.

At daylight yesterday journalists saw the bodies of eight of the dead -- militia fighters in civilian clothes -- lying crumpled on streets and in the dirt by the side of roads, surrounded by hundreds of incredulous ex-comrades.

The return to gunfire by the fighters -- ragtag, undisciplined, and habitually drunk and high on drugs -- after months of peace in the capital posed a major challenge to a 4,500-strong UN peace force.

The force, due to grow to the world's largest at 15,000 strong, is charged with helping oversee disarmament of the estimated 40,000 rebel and government fighters nationwide after 14 years of near-constant conflict. The government and rebels are trying to implement a peace deal reached after Taylor fled the country in August.

Trying to quell the violence, US and Liberian officials went on state radio, demanding that fighters lay down their arms. The United Nations vowed the nationwide disarmament program would continue.

The clashes started Monday, on the second day of disarmament.

The Taylor loyalists were due to enter a disarmament camp. Hundreds rioted instead, demanding money to give up their guns.

Gunmen on the eastern edge of Monrovia, near the camp, blasted AK-47 rounds into the air, looted and burned some homes, and chased civilians off the streets.

Trying to stop the rampages, UN leaders acquiesced Tuesday, agreeing to give $75 in cash on the spot to each fighter who gave up his gun and entered the containment camp. Still, rioting persisted into yesterday.

With looting and gunfire raging, interim leader Gyude Bryant late Tuesday imposed a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew on the city.

UN peace forces in armored vehicles and pickup trucks rolled out in force into eastern districts early yesterday, residents and Liberian and UN officials said.

The bursts of firing grew heavier as the UN troops moved in, then subsided, according to residents, who listened to the rounds as they cowered inside their homes.

A senior Liberian police official said UN troops and militiamen exchanged fire, killing the eight militiamen. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

However, both military and civilian UN officials said they had no knowledge of UN forces opening fire.

Such an engagement would mark the first known clash between UN forces and Liberian fighters here.

UN spokeswoman Margaret Novicki said she knew of only one death, that of a woman killed in the militia firing Tuesday. Extra UN forces were out on the streets yesterday, and schools were closed.

Over Liberian radio, US Ambassador John Blaney called on the militia fighters to stop shooting.

The US ambassador demanded that all sides in American-founded Liberia stick to their Aug. 18 peace accord, repeating international officials' standing warning on the bloodied nation's current peace process: "This is Liberia's last chance."

Bryant, Liberia's interim leader under the peace deal, also went on state radio, warning that the rampaging troops would be arrested and brought before a war crimes court.

UN envoy Jacques Klein, an American, said that a "small criminal element has attempted to disrupt what is a major international effort to bring peace, security, and stability to the Liberian people."

Klein pledged that disarmament would continue.

But the week's fighting by government troops showed the difficulty of getting fighters on all sides to disarm, and rebel movements have yet to even start giving up their guns.

Taylor launched Liberia into conflict in 1989, leading an insurgency bent on taking control of the government. An estimated quarter-million Liberians died in the 14 years of bloodletting that followed, until Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria on Aug. 11.

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