Violence Erupts In Liberia

MONROVIA, Liberia, Oct. 29, 2004

Mobs of angry youths brandishing machetes, sticks and Kalashnikov rifles rampaged through Liberia's war-shattered capital on Friday in a rare outbreak of Muslim-Christian violence, prompting the country's leader to order an immediate round-the-clock curfew.

Plumes of black smoke rose from Monrovia's eastern district of Paynesville, where U.N. peacekeepers in armored personnel carriers fired in the air in a bid to maintain order, and U.N. helicopters rumbled overhead.

One U.N. armored vehicle that was trying to disperse a crowd inadvertently crushed and killed three people who had been knocked down as they tried to flee, a policeman in the area said on condition of anonymity. Crowds dispersed briefly, but congregated again later down the road after U.N. vehicles drove off.

At least three churches and two mosques in Paynesville were set ablaze after midnight, and several wounded people lay in the streets, an Associated Press photographer on the scene said. One man, stabbed in the head with a knife, could be seen on a main road lying, apparently unconscious, in a pool of blood.

It was not clear what sparked the violence. (Islam is the main cause of violence in Africa)

About 40 percent of Liberia's 3.3 million people are Christians, while about 20 percent are Muslim. The rest follow indigenous beliefs.

In a statement broadcast over public and private radio stations, interim head of state Gyude Bryant said he was ordering an immediate curfew in Monrovia to protect "lives and properties" and called on residents to stay home.

"I have authorized the U.N. to use whatever force is necessary to get everybody off the streets. Anyone attempting to vandalize will be deal with firmly and rigidly," he said.

"I am appealing to all of you to remain calm," he said. "We are determined to ensure that peace is restored."

Residents said troubles began early Thursday in Paynesville and spread west to an Atlantic Ocean port in the capital.

Sporadic gunshots echoed throughout the morning in Paynesville, as mobs hurled rocks and stones at each other.

Several homes were burnt. At least three men also were injured one stabbed in the head, one bludgeoned in the face, and one shot shot in the leg who was carried to safety by two friends.

Some residents said five people had been killed in the violence. The claims could not be verified independently, and government officials could not be reached for comment.

Violence had also reportedly spread to Kakata, 55 kilometers (35 miles) north of the capital, where two mosques were destroyed, said a local journalist who visited the site.

Mobs attempted to destroy a third mosque, but were stopped by peacekeeping troops deployed in the town, he said on condition of anonymity.

The U.N. police commander in Liberia, Mark Kroeker, said U.N. troops had rescued several people from angry mobs in Monrovia.

"Several houses were destroyed, numerous citizens were injured," Kroeker said on a U.N. radio station in the capital. "We have had to extract numerous people from various situations and rescue them from mobs during the night."

He did not say any churches or mosques were burned. But religious leaders took to the airwaves to appeal for calm.

Liberia is struggling to recover from an era of fighting that began in 1989 and claimed at least 150,000 lives.

A three-year rebel war ended last year. With insurgents shelling the capital, President Charles Taylor agreed to go into exile in Nigeria, clearing the way for a transitional government that gave top rebel officials ministerial posts.

A 15,000-strong U.N. peace force is now stationed in the West African nation to provide security. The new government is to hold elections in October 2005.