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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Liberians Panic as Rebel Force Advances

MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberia's armed forces went on the offensive Sunday against rebels who reached the gates of the capital, forcing a state of emergency and sending thousands of terrified civilians fleeing, its defense chief said.

Tension has gripped Monrovia since rebels attacked the town of Kley, just 35 kilometers away. Thursday was the closest rebels came to the capital since they began Liberia's latest war in mid-2000.

"We are still fighting them over the town of Bopolu," said Defense Minister Daniel Chea.

Bopolu, 85 kilometers north of Monrovia, has been used in recent weeks as a forward base by the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy rebels who attacked Kley.

Chea said the rebels had killed 15 people in a camp near Kley for people displaced by the war.

A Liberian driver working for British-based aid organization Action Aid was also killed late Thursday.

The conflict has forced thousands from their homes, and the shooting in Kley sent refugees streaming into Monrovia.

The rebels, who threatened Friday to attack Monrovia if President Charles Taylor did not step down, say they are in control of much of northwestern Liberia and denied the government had the upper hand.

"We are still in full control of the areas we have taken and we are moving ahead," one LURD official said in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday.

But Chea said LURD did not have effective control of any large areas and that his forces were also fighting rebels in the northern town of Kolahun, where LURD has been active since beginning its campaign in July 2000.

Taylor's government accuses northern neighbor Guinea of supporting the rebels and says its response to the attacks is hampered by a United Nations arms embargo.

The embargo was strengthened last year to halt a diamond-for-arms trade with Sierra Leonean rebels notorious for chopping off the legs of women and children.

"Because of the arms embargo we are unable to adequately defend our people," Chea said, adding that the rebels were well equipped and getting a lot of support from Guinea. Guinea denies supporting LURD.

Chea said he also had evidence that militia fighters from Sierra Leone, known as Kamajors, were fighting on the rebel side.

"Yesterday we came across somebody whose leg had been chopped off by a blunt object, like something that happened in Sierra Leone's civil war. That's the first time we've seen something like that since this began," he said.

The war is part of a regional conflict centered on the diamond-rich area at the junction of Liberia's borders with Guinea and Sierra Leone.

A 10-year war officially ended last month.

On both sides of the war are fighters from the last civil war, which ended in 1997 with the election of Taylor, a suave U.S.-educated former warlord.

Founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves as a haven of liberty, Liberia has since come to represent constant anarchy in a troubled region.