MONROVIA, LIBERIA, MAY 27 -- Frightened families caught in the midst of Liberia's five-month-old civil war have been packing clothes, bedding, pots and pans atop pickup trucks and fleeing this city as rumors mount that rebel guerrilla forces were closing in.
Many schools and shops have closed, and dozens of people lined up today outside the embassy of neighboring Sierra Leone seeking visas. "We don't want to be slaughtered," said one man in the visa line.
The beleaguered government of President Samuel Doe broadcast appeals for the public to refrain from panic, but government officials themselves appeared far from calm. Diplomats said Doe, who seized power in a bloody 1980 coup, had been moving from one location to another around the capital during the night and that his presidential jet was being kept ready at a Monrovia airfield.
Some government officials apparently have already fled the country, and Western officials said that the ministries of internal affairs, foreign affairs and information were being run by acting directors.
Clandestine rebel radio broadcasts today quoted insurgent leader Charles Taylor as saying that his forces had been attacking government troops around the country's main airport, an hour's drive from Monrovia. However, observers in the area said that the airport remained open, and British Airways officials said their flights were still arriving.
Meanwhile, the army's Scheiffelin Barracks, which could be a last line of defense between the advancing rebels and Monrovia, appeared deserted except for a half-dozen soldiers at a roadblock. Many Monrovia residents say they fear both the rebels and undisciplined government soldiers, who they say are often drunk or drugged.
Government radio has broadcast orders to soldiers not to harass civilians, but refugees said that troops unable to halt the rebel drive sometimes turned their wrath on civilians, raping, killing, looting and burning down homes as they retreat.
International human-rights groups have accused Doe's forces of systematic killing of civilians and other abuses in recent years, allegations that Doe has denied. There have also been reports that the rebels -- chiefly Liberian exiles who entered the country from neighboring Sierra Leone Dec. 24 -- had summarily slain supporters of Doe's government.