Mortars fired at US helicopters as fragile truce in Liberia is shattered


US helicopters evacuating foreign nationals from the Liberian capital came under mortar fire yesterday as anarchy hit Monrovia for a fifth day. An Irish aid worker was among those evacuated.

Tide helicopters, which the US military are using to ship cut hundreds of US and other citizens trapped in Monrovia, were repeatedly targeted by mortar fired by the armed factions battling in the city. None of the aircraft was hit.

The Pentagon has said 273 foreigners have been flown out of Liberia since the operation began on Tuesday. However a "sizeable number" of Americans remained in Monrovia and could not reach the US embassy because of fighting.

Yesterday's renewed violence - has shattered a fragile ceasefire that was holding in the Liberian capital, five days after factional fighting broke out. The fighting is between Krahn fighters loyal to dismissed "General" Roosevelt Johnson and forces loyal to warlords Charles Taylor and Alhaji Kroinah.

Liberian gunmen loyal to "General" Johnson, a wanted militia leader, yesterday freed a handful of the hundreds of hostages they have seized as part of the worst unrest in the country since a peace agreement was signed last year. UN sources said negotiations for the release of 36 Lebanese also taken captive were continuing.

The gunmen are still believed to be holding some 600 people as human shields against any attack at a military barracks in the capital.

The ethnic Krahn fighters took the hostages as part of unrest that broke out on Saturday when police tried to arrest "General" Johnson on a murder charge.

The captives included 20 members of an African peacekeeping force known as ECOMOG. Most of these soldiers were freed yesterday, ECOMOG sources said.

A UN source described the negotiations for the release of the Lebanese as difficult. He said delegations from the ECOMOG force, African diplomats and the UN envoy to Liberia, Mr Anthony Nyanki, were due to meet the Knihn fighters at the barracks.

Michael Foley reports: The Department of Foreign Affairs has been able to confirm that only one Irish person has managed to leave Liberia. At least eight missionary priests and one aid worker are still in the country.

Last night, Mrs Maureen Kinahan, the mother of Ms Therese Kinahan, said her daughter was in good spirits and hoped to get to the US embassy early this morning to be airlifted to Senegal. She had been able to contact her by phone yesterday evening.

Ms Kinahan is married to a Liberian and has a one year old daughter Mairead. She has been in Liberia since 1984 as an administrator for the aid agency The Christian Help Association of Liberia.

Meanwhile, eight members of the Society of African Missions (SMA) are still near Monrovia. Father John O'Keeffe, of the order's headquarters in Cork, said the priests were safe and in good spirits. He said his colleagues were "all experienced men" who had been in the country throughout the civil war.

However, he said they were feeling the strain of staying indoors band could hear shooting from were they were staying.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said it had been in contact with the US State Department, which confirmed that at least one Irish person had been flown to Dakar in Senegal.