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Death Toll Rising in Liberia

Aired July 21, 2003 - 14:06   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: We do have a little bit of breaking news to tell you about.
We have Jeff Koinange, who is with us now live, joining us on top of the U.S. Embassy, one of the buildings there in the compound there in Monrovia, Liberia, there. We've been telling you about, well, the sheer chaos that is under way there right now. And Jeff Koinange has got a vantage point there, going to give us a quick live report.

Jeff, first of all, just tell us where are you right now and what can you see.


I can tell you, we're on the balcony of the U.S. Embassy building. Right behind me is the helipad. And beyond that is the Atlantic Ocean. And that is where we saw the mortars falling earlier on. And we saw about three or four of them, but there was plenty more, maybe about a dozen or more that fell all around this U.S. Embassy.

We can tell you from the start, Miles, that the death toll is rising, about 50-plus right now, scores of injured in the local hospital. It wasn't the embassy that just took a pounding, also the city of Monrovia, scores of death. In fact, they're stacking dead bodies right outside the U.S. Embassy as we speak right now. Liberians are venting their anger at the United States, some of them saying: If you had intervened, this would not be happening.

The embassy did take a pounding, like I mentioned. The commissary was hit. Nobody was injured. That's why we were evacuated to that safe room, Miles, because the mortars were raining here all over the place. Fighting still continues into the street, intermittent right now. But earlier on, there was fierce fighting. There was also people fleeing just to get away from the city. Remember, people had sought refuge within the city.

Now, with no running water, no food, no sanitation, no medication, nothing, they are just picking up the little they have of their belongings and everyone is just leaving towards the west part of town, where there hasn't been that much fighting. They just want to be away from all this noise, all these mortar shellings, and all the bullets flying all over the place, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Jeff, do you have a rough head count of how many U.S. personnel are inside that compound? And what decisions are being made as to whether certain nonessential personnel should be airlifted out of there?

KOINANGE: Don't know the number of U.S. personnel, Miles, can't tell you that right now.

But we can tell you that they did evacuate some journalists today and some aide workers. They did leave on those Black Hawks that brought in the fast-track team. The embassy officials say the fast- track team may come in tomorrow, depending on how the situation is. And, of course, if they do come in, they will be evacuating some people out, but no mass evacuation planned yet as of now, Miles, nothing to that effect.

O'BRIEN: Jeff, I don't want to take you too far down the road into speculation here, but can you give us a sense as to why the U.S. Embassy might become a target, potentially? We don't know. It could have been just caught in the crossfire, but potentially become a target. Would it be the rebels? Would it be forces loyal to Taylor, or perhaps both?

KOINANGE: Well, I'll tell you what, Miles.

The government has already come and said, they do not have any 81- or 82-millimeter mortar shells. Obviously, there is no way to verify that. But they vehemently said, this is not coming from them; this is from LURD. And LURD saying the same thing: This is the government. So, obviously, it's back and forth. No side is admitting right now.

But why the embassy would be attacked, people are speculating, because of that fast-track team that arrived here earlier -- and you know that fast-track team is the Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team, the one that is based in Rota, Spain, went to Freetown, got on those Black Hawks, came and landed here. There was supposed to be 41 of them. Only 21 arrived. Someone was definitely sending a message, according to people on the ground, sending a message to the U.S. that they weren't happy with what was going on and that's why the missiles were raining down earlier this afternoon -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: And are we hearing any word at all, officially or unofficially, from Taylor or his people as to what his stance is right now? Is he as hardened as he has been?

KOINANGE: We haven't heard any word from him at all today.

But two days ago, he did say he was willing to fight to the very last man. And he did order his government troops to try and push the rebels back as far back as they could. But, Miles, the rebels are coming back thick and strong. And they're really raining down this city with mortar shells throughout most of this day.

O'BRIEN: I can only imagine it would complicate any sort of role for any peacekeeping force, given the situation right now.

KOINANGE: Absolutely.

And, remember, peacekeepers are here to do just that. The are not peace enforcers. This seriously undermines any plans to bring in peacekeepers, because there's fighting in the streets of Monrovia. Nobody wants to come -- no peacekeepers want to come when there's bullets, stray bullets, flying and mortars raining down on this city. They want to come and maintain peace and not enforce it. So that's definitely going to undermine any peacekeeping force that's going to be deployed, Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Jeff Koinange.

You can see where he stands right there. You saw the satellite image at that U.S. Embassy compound on the coast there in Monrovia, Liberia. Stay -- there you see it. I don't know which building you are on. And we probably shouldn't even be talking necessarily about precisely where you are.

But, Jeff Koinange, stay safe. Thank you for your good reporting exclusively here for CNN. We appreciate it.

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