Catholic Priest Freed

A Catholic priest, who went missing two weeks ago along with 60 blind people in Tubmanburg, western Liberia, has been set free, Catholic Archbishop Michael Francis confirmed to IRIN on Thursday from the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

The priest, Garry Jenkins, was released by Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels. He was handed over on Wednesday to the Apostolic Nuncio, the Vatican's embassy, in Conakry, the capital of neighbouring Guinea, Francis said.

"He is at the embassy but we have no more details on when he could possibly be moved to Monrovia or what exactly had happened to him," he said, adding that Jenkin's release was a relief to the Catholic fraternity.

According to Francis, Jenkins was freed after a team of Liberian Christian and Muslim leaders travelled to Guinea and negotiated his release with the rebels. The fate of the 60 blind people remained unknown, Francis said.

Jenkins was last seen in his parish of St. Dominique, two weeks ago. The circumstances under which he and the 60 others left the parish have remained unclear. On Monday, a rebel spokesman denied reports that they had kidnapped them. He told IRIN that they had just "saved" the lives of the priest and two other Liberians whom they had taken with them to their headquarters in Voinjama, northern Liberia, because there had been fierce fighting around the parish.

Bishop Francis also told IRIN on Monday that it was possible the priest and the others were caught in a cross-fire.

LURD has been fighting to topple President Charles Taylor since 1998. It was recently accused by human rights groups and government troops of perpetrating rights abuses in the country. However, in a news release on Thursday, LURD accused the government of looting, massacres and extra judicial killings, saying these were "trademarks" of President Charles Taylor's regime.

In the statement, LURD said it had "elected to reduce and/or halt" military activities in the country with "immediate effect". It, however, warned that it would "vehemently defend" areas under its full control and retaliate should they come under attack from the government.

LURD said it was in control of Lofa County in the northwest, Gbarpolu County, which is immediately south of Lofa, the western county of Bomi, and key areas in central Liberia.

Suehn, some 70 km north of Monrovia, B.F Goodrich Rubber plantation and surroundings, close to Bong Mines in the northern county of Bong, are also under "full control of our forces", it said.

"We are prepared to dialogue with any individual or group of Liberians, except Charles Taylor who is the sole problem for the region," LURD said.