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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 19:19 GMT
Thousands flee Liberia fighting
By Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Sawmill

More than 15,000 people displaced by fresh fighting between Liberian troops and rebels in the northwest of the country in the last week have arrived in Sawmill Town.

Sawmill, situated some 100 kilometres northwest of the capital Monrovia, has begun swelling with displaced people who intermittently arrive in large groups.

We see the soldiers themselves evacuating their families from here while at the same them urging us to remain.

Annie Manten

The vast majority of them fled camps in towns such as Bopolu, the provincial capital of northwestern Gbarpolu county which has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in recent days.

The displaced people complained that they were being prevented from moving further on to much more safer areas like the main provincial town, Tubmanburg, some 60km outside of Monrovia.

Zubazi Aquoi, a spokesman for the displaced, said Bopolu itself has not been attacked, "but echoes of artillery bombardments were so heavy from embattled places, that the 3,600 people at the camp all came with me".

Troop deployment

The fleeing people arrived in the town carrying bundles of personal effects mainly cooking utensils and foam mattresses on their heads.

Liberia's Defence Minister Daniel Chea, visiting the region on Monday, said the displaced people were safe where they are "and we will do everything to see them go home very soon".

Two children in Konia
The displaced are not confident of their safety

Mr Chea deployed more heavily armed troops in the area on Monday to contain the spread of the rebellion and provide safety for civilians.

"We will make the movement of the rebels difficult," he said, dressed in a bullet-proof jacket.

Displaced people pouring into Sawmill on foot are largely women with babies strapped to their backs and men carrying children on their shoulders.

Hundreds of them suffering from travel fatigue and hunger sat on the road side with bundles of personal effects beside them.

Not confident

Government troops and rebels clashed in the north-western remote towns of Kungbor and Weasua on Monday.

We began to see amongst us people we have not seen before. This suggested to us that the rebels had infiltrated

Boaima Massaley
"The rebels entered Kungbor yesterday and our men are trying to chase them out," said a Liberian commander. "They are here to sabotage our Christmas and we will not allow it."

But not everyone is that sure.

Annie Manten, a resident of Lofa Bridge, a diamond mining town 17km east of Sawmill refuted this.

"We see the soldiers themselves evacuating their families from here while at the same them urging us to remain. If the place is so safe as they tell us, why can't all of us remain," she asked.

Rebel infiltration

Boaima Massaley, a typhoid sufferer who trekked from the town of Weasua, another diamond-rich town of Gbarpolu county, said they walked for three days to Sawmill.

"We fled because we felt that we were threatened. We began to see amongst us people we have not seen before. This suggested to us that the rebels had infiltrated," Boaimah said, half-naked and sweating.

As he spoke, hundreds of fellow displaced people looked on and nodded in approval. He claimed that 16,000 people had fled Weasua and surrounding towns.

Liberian soldier
Heavily arrmed troops have been sent to the area

There are over 50,000 internally displaced people in the north-western region. They had earlier been forced to flee northern Lofa county, where the rebels began their attacks three years ago.

Moses Konneh, a displaced man at Sawmill said he left Lofa Bridge on Sunday, "because although the war has not reached there, I saw people packing and leaving in panic."

Aid agencies, including Medecins Sans Frontiers, pulled out of the region last week when the rebels launched an attack on the town of Belle Fassamah.

See also:

09 Oct 01 | Africa
Liberia starts to rebuild
28 Sep 01 | Africa
Liberia reopens borders
17 Sep 01 | Africa
Liberia bans Bin Laden pictures
16 Aug 00 | Africa
Q&A: Charles Taylor on gunrunning
15 May 00 | Africa
Diamonds: A rebel's best friend
12 Feb 01 | Africa
Timeline: Liberia
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