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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Liberian Rebels Hold Hostages as UN Evacuates

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Rebels held hundreds of civilians and West African peacekeepers captive Tuesday, and the United Nations began flying out some of its staff after three days of fierce fighting and looting.

Monrovia was mostly calm Tuesday, witnesses said. But thousands of people, including foreign diplomats and Liberian civilians, were holed up in the U.S. Embassy compound and at UN offices.

U.S. military specialists were to arrive Tuesday evening from neighboring Sierra Leone to devise a plan for evacuating some 470 Americans trapped in the capital, said Dudley Sims, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia.

However, a U.S. official at the State Department in Washington, who was asked whether a decision to evacuate had been made, said, "I don't think we're at that point yet."

At least 16 employees of the UN observer mission in Liberia were evacuated from Monrovia on Monday night.

The UN envoy to Liberia said rebels were holding hundreds of Liberian, Lebanese and other foreign civilians, as well as African peacekeepers, at a military barracks in the capital, apparently using them as human shields.

"[Rebels] are fearful that the other side is going to storm the barracks and what they want is assurance that the barracks will not be stormed," envoy Anthony Nyakyi said by telephone from Monrovia.

An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 civilians, ranging from foreign diplomats to missionaries and Liberians, have been crowded into the U.S. Embassy compounds and UN offices since Saturday, when the worst fighting in three years erupted in the capital.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the UN observer mission in Liberia told reporters in Freetown, the capital of neighboring Sierra Leone, that he and 15 others from the observer mission had been flown out Monday night.

"Fighting is heavy in Monrovia and two of our helicopters have been destroyed by heavy machine-gun fire," spokesman Renn Karl said, describing the situation on Monday. "Houses and shops have been set on fire."

The UN has not made an official statement about whether it would join a full-scale evacuation effort. More than 200 UN personnel remain in Liberia.

Most of the Americans are missionaries, employees of private groups or business people. There are 38 U.S. Embassy employees and their spouses; children are not allowed at the mission because of the danger.

Sims said 50 Americans would return to Freetown on Tuesday night in the helicopters that brought in the military specialists. The U.S. military assessment team was dispatched to Sierra Leone on Monday. The United States last evacuated foreigners in 1990, when U.S. Marines rescued 2,400 Americans from rebel fighting in the city.

U.S. officials said 110 Americans and 210 Liberians and other foreigners, including the Egyptian ambassador, were at the embassy Monday night. There were concerns about a possible food shortage.

Three days of gunfire and shelling in the capital came to an abrupt end Tuesday, for no clear reason. "It is the most eerie feeling I have ever had," Sims said. "It is absolutely calm. There was some light gunfire this morning, but now it's just silence."

About 12,000 African peacekeepers, most of them Nigerian, have been unable to stem Liberia's fighting, despite a peace accord that was supposed to clear the way for elections this year.