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Liberian Gov’t Retakes Key Town

July 21, 2002

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TUBMANBURG, Liberia (AP) _ Brandishing rifles, jubilant government troops strutted through this heavily looted northwestern Liberian town after driving away rebel forces who had controlled it for close to three months.

Ten mutilated bodies lay on the outskirts of the iron mining town, whose streets were littered Saturday with spent bullet cartridges

Government forces said the bodies were those of rebel fighters, who were chased out of town in a fierce gun battle late Friday.

``In this operation, we don’t keep POWs,″ said Gen. Roland Duo, commander of the government troops in Tubmanburg. ``The forces we fought to remove from here were prepared to stay. We had to fight them real enemies.″

President Charles Taylor’s government has been battling a shadowy rebel movement for three years. The insurgents have stepped up attacks in recent months, reaching to within minutes of the capital, Monrovia, in May.

Fierce fighting continued Sunday in the northern rebel stronghold of Voinjama, near the border with Guinea, military officials said on condition of anonymity.

Government forces have been fighting to dislodge rebel forces from the town since Friday, sending frightened civilians fleeing over the border. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Duo said scores of rebel fighters were killed and seven government soldiers injured in the fighting at Tubmanburg, about 40 miles northwest of Monrovia.

Government forces also recovered 700 rockets when the rebels withdrew from the town, Assistant Defense Minster Philipbert Brown said Sunday.

The claims could not be independently verified.

Hundreds of soldiers _ many of them children _ paraded through the town Saturday, singing and chanting slogans.

``Anybody who says no more Taylor, we will kill you like a dog,″ they chanted.

Others combed the surrounding forest, ``using blood trails″ to pursue any remaining rebel fighters, Duo said.

The government was encouraging civilians to return to the town, including a group of blind people who were found scattered around surrounding villages after Tubmanburg was attacked in May.

Some of them sat in the center of town Saturday, surrounded by bundles of possessions. Nearby, about 80 people lined up to receive ground cassava distributed by the soldiers.

``We thank God for life,″ said Thomas Fallah, 52.

Many were left with little but the clothes they were wearing.

``Every time the rebels came, we ran, and they took away our things,″ said William Johnson, 62, who was separated from his family when the town was attacked in May. He does not know what happened to them.

Government troops also participated in the looting, residents said.

One resident said if a soldiers tells someone to leave, it means he has spotted some valuable things in the person’s house.

Human rights organizations accuse both sides of abuses, including rapes, killings and the forced recruitment of civilians.

Little is known about the rebels. Taylor says they include members of factions that fought against him in Liberia’s bloody 1989-1996 civil war and accuses Guinea of backing the insurgents. Guinea denies the charge.

The United Nations says the fighting has forced some 200,000 Liberians to flee their homes.

Thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees who fled a decade-long civil war in their own country have also been displaced. Many are returning home after the war in their country was officially declared over in January.

A U.N.-chartered boat carrying 247 refugees departed Monrovia on Saturday for the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown.

The refugees were the first of about 4,000 who have registered for repatriation, U.N. officials said. Thousands of others have returned on their own.

``We are leaving Liberia, but will continue to pray for peace to return to this country, too,″ said one departing refugee, Mohammed Barron.

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