At least seven aid workers abducted by Liberian insurgents were freed today, while about 90 U.N. and other foreign workers fled into Guinea to avoid the fighting, officials said.
The release came as Liberian soldiers battled insurgents near the Guinea border. The government declared a state of emergency when fighting erupted there this week.
"The fighting is now continuing on the outskirts of the town (of Voinjama) around a small airstrip where the dissidents fled," said Philipbert Brown, the chief defense spokesman.
Alex Parisel, director of the Belgian branch of Doctors Without Borders, said his group's two workers, along with four other European aid workers, had all been freed. At least one Liberian was also freed.
"They have been well-treated, they're safe and sound," he said in a telephone interview.
The British Foreign Office confirmed the release of the Britons.
The Liberian hostage crisis was one of four major hostage-taking incidents in West Africa in less than two weeks. Rebels in Sierra Leone seized more than 20 civilians and soldiers on Aug. 4 and released them in the following days; gunmen took a handful of British oil engineers captive this week in Nigeria and released them; and, today, suspected rebels abducted about 10 civilians and soldiers in Senegal's Casamance province.
The aid workers were captured Wednesday morning, shortly after the rebels attacked the northern Liberian town of Kolahun, the Liberian government said.
Parisel said the captors had made no demands and appeared to want to release their hostages as soon as they could.
"We have the feeling that our people were caught in the middle of a fight," he said.
He said that about 90 people, including many U.N. employees, aid workers and family members, had become trapped at the Guinean border when they tried to flee the fighting. However, the border was opened Friday evening and they were allowed to cross, he said.
Liberian officials say the insurgents first attacked the town of Kolahun, about 25 miles to the southwest. After being driven from there, they regrouped and turned to Voinjama.
No journalists have reached northern Liberia, so Brown's account could not be confirmed.
Exactly who the insurgents are remains unclear.
Brown said Thursday that they were likely dissidents loyal to former Liberian faction leader Alhaji Kromah. But aid agency officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said President Charles Taylor's main rival, Roosevelt Johnson, had been seen recently in Conakry, Guinea, and that soldiers loyal to him were gathering along the Guinea-Liberia border.
Kromah and Johnson both led factions that battled Taylor's factional militia during Liberia's brutal 1990-97 civil war. Since Taylor was elected president in 1997, his government has at times accused both men of forming anti-government militias.