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Rebel fighting rages in Liberia

Liberian refugees head to the safety of a small town called Fire Stone, about 100 kilometers from Monrovia.
Liberian refugees head to the safety of a small town called Fire Stone, about 100 kilometers from Monrovia.

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(CNN) -- Liberian rebels have burned down villages and attacked residents in the northeast of the country, threatening to cause a new humanitarian crisis.

The country's information minister on Sunday said that in the past week tens of thousands of people had been forced to leave their homes.

The two main rebel groups, LURD and MODEL, have been launching the attacks on government-controlled areas in the mineral-rich area of Bahn, Reginald Goodridge told CNN.

The rebels have burned down villages, raped women, killed residents, and attacked the government forces that are trying to defend the area, Goodridge said.

The Liberian government is "baffled" at why the rebel groups would buck the peace deal they signed with the government only last week, he added.

"We are confused," he said. "We don't know for what reason that LURD and MODEL continue to fight."

Representatives from LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and MODEL (Movement for Democracy in Liberia) signed the deal August 18 with Liberian Foreign Minister Louis Brown.

Intended to end the civil war that has wracked the country for 14 years, the deal also paves the way for free elections in 2005. It followed President Charles Taylor's resignation and departure from the country, which U.S. President George Bush had demanded.

Given the international attention paid to the country's political situation, Goodridge lamented that other nations were not now paying more attention to the new fighting.

"It's disappointing that we're not hearing much condemnation from the international community," Goodridge said. "This government has given so much concession."

A force of 150 U.S. Marines left Liberia Sunday and returned to ships off the coast, where they are to remain for the immediate future, U.S. military officials told CNN Sunday. (Full story)

Their departure left the the peacekeeping mission in the hands of 1,500 Nigerian troops, the vanguard for a West African force that is expected to maintain the peace and control the distribution of humanitarian aid throughout the country, the officials said.

U.S. Marine helicopters prepare to leave Liberia.

Goodridge found no fault with the U.S. pullout because the fighting, he said, is hundreds of miles away from the capital of Monrovia. He does, however, hope that the West African military force known as ECOMIL will beef up its numbers in the area of the fighting so as to quell the rebels.

"We do not expect American forces to go into that area," Goodridge said. "What we hope is that they will increase the logistical support and they will also make some public statement to warn LURD and MODEL that they are breaking the ceasefire and they are tampering with the peace agreement."

So far, Goodridge said, the rebels have forced out more than 200,000 residents who are now beginning to march towards Monrovia.

"This is going to crate a new wave of humanitarian crisis," he said.

The 1,500 Nigerian peacekeepers represent the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its military component known as ECOMIL (ECOWAS Mission in Liberia).

The ECOMIL force is expected to grow to about 3,200 troops with the arrival of troops from other African nations in the coming weeks.

The mission is expected to be taken over in the coming months by a United Nations peacekeeping force.

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