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EDITIONS
Saturday, 3 August, 2002, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
On Liberia's front line
President Charles Taylor
The rebels want President Taylor out of office

Tubmanburg, 35 miles north of the Liberian capital Monrovia is a dilapidated place.

Once an iron-ore mining centre, it comprises perhaps a couple of hundred houses which straddle a rare strip of metalled road leading to the capital.

At least two-thirds of these forlorn concrete dwellings, thinly covered by scraps of rusting corrugated zinc, lie deserted, many of them damaged by the ebb and flow of war around them.

Its inhabitants left in droves as the rebels advanced on the town.

For many months, it was unclear if these rebels - who are somewhat awkwardly named Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd) - existed at all.

Expanding army

Some suggested that the entire rebellion in Liberia had been concocted by a scheming President Charles Taylor to justify lifting the arms embargo enforced against him after his support for the rebellion in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

But the rebels, known as the Lurd, are all too real. I spent six weeks getting to this place through their territory - isolated towns and villages set amidst unforgiving malaria-infested jungles and swamps.

Taylor can't make it. We started with 80 men - can you believe it, 80 to fight an entire army?

Lurd commander
It's a brutal conflict they're involved in and one which is marked by the most absurd contradictions.

Sartorially, the Lurd are a bizarre mixture of partly uniformed irregular soldiers and, LA gangster chic.

Advancing

They are well-armed and, despite their appearance, deadly serious about removing Charles Taylor from power.

As one commander explained, carefully picking his way through the smouldering debris that litters the centre of town: "Taylor can't make it. We started with 80 men. Can you believe it, 80 to fight an entire army?"

General Fromo began railing wildly against the shell-shocked prisoner as stray bullets ripped into the buildings around us

His message, which is delivered in a slow, confident Liberian drawl - a way of speaking rooted in the southern American states - is confirmed by the huge swathes of jungle they have taken, and the towns and villages they have occupied on their way to the outskirts of Monrovia itself.

Their commanders have noms-de-guerre as comic as they are lethal: Dragon Master, Bush Dog, Jungle Root and Nasty Duke. They might be an unorthodox lot but they can display a surprising degree of organisation and discipline.

During the intense fighting that has raged in and around Tubmanburg since my arrival I have seen the Lurd fighting bitterly for their very survival.

Killing

And it's been difficult to reconcile the polite and strangely courteous men and women who share the last of their precious rice and cigarettes with the brutality of soldiers at war.

During a heated exchange in the centre of town, General Prince Fromo, a senior Lurd commander, ran towards me, effusive about a victory he felt was near at hand.

Shaking sweat from his glistening dreadlocks, he bellowed above the deafening crack-and-thump of the battle: "No monkey can try it! They're running up the hill. I told you, real action, all the way to Monrovia."

A government soldier, just taken prisoner, was dragged forward, stripped to his underwear, hands bound, bleeding, dirty and confused. General Fromo began railing wildly against the shell-shocked prisoner as stray bullets ripped into the buildings around us.

At that moment a dead Lurd fighter was borne down the road towards us, carried by four of his comrades. Enraged, the General unleashed, without warning, two bursts of automatic gunfire into the prisoner.

I watched, numb, as the unfortunate man gasped last desperate breaths in the dust of the road.

I turned to a rebel standing beside me, and heard myself say, "He's still breathing". Surprisingly, he responded with a look of real concern. "Oh," he asked, "should I shoot him some more?"

Threat of famine

Away from the fighting there is another tragedy unfolding. Last year saw no planting of the rice crop in rebel-held areas. So the spectre of famine now looms large in the lives of many increasingly desperate Liberians.

In the central village of Garbi - a tiny brown oasis of life in a dark green sea of putrid forest - Tetema Howard, a 48-year-old mother of 10, is sitting disconsolately in front of her mud and thatch hut. Seemingly oblivious to the stinging midday heat, she tells me, bluntly, that she is hungry.

Although by and large the Lurd have refrained from harassing civilians, they have requisitioned already meagre food supplies for their growing army.

Tetema was deserted by her elder children when the Lurd took control of the area last November. Her husband lies ill and unstirring within the hut. The nearest poorly-equipped clinic is over two days' walk away through dense jungle.

With no farm of her own, she survives only on the dwindling supply of rice that her eldest daughter left behind. What, I asked, would she do when this ran out? Quiet for a long time, her eyes searched my face for an answer.

Eventually she looked at the ground and murmured, in an almost inaudible whisper, "It's in the hands of God".

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