Liberian rebels seized the vast U.S.-owned Bridgestone-Firestone rubber plantation Wednesday and attacked the adjoining international airport. Government troops apparently killed a senior aide to insurgent leader Charles Taylor, rebel sources said.

The rebels made "friendly" contact with the U.S. management of the rubber plantation, the largest in the world, 1 mile from the Robertsfield International Airport, residents and the rebel sources said.The rebels attacked the airport Tuesday night and seized the nearby key checkpoint at Owensgrove and the Firestone company town at Harbel but did not immediately capture the airport, which is 35 miles southeast of the capital Monrovia, said the sources.

Bridgestone-Firestone Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of the Japanese company Bridgestone Corp., owns the 300-square-mile plantation housing some 75,000 people and 10,000 refugees from the fighting.

Rebels searched Wednesday for the body of Elmer Johnson, a former U.S. Army sergeant who took part in the American invasion of Grenada in 1983 before becoming chief military adviser to Taylor, a former civil servant.

Johnson, 33, a Liberian who served in the U.S. Army for six years, was part of a convoy of 30 rebels that was attacked by government troops Sunday 2 miles outside the port of Buchanan, 80 miles south of Monrovia.

Rebels have recovered the bodies of two bodyguards of the U.S.-educated Johnson and found his identification papers and gun in a captured army truck. Liberian state television in Monrovia reported he was killed.

Rebel troops credited Johnson with holding the rebel force together and instilling discipline in the field as well as attempting to stop looting by rebel troops. But they said there are other experienced leaders in their force to continue the war.

There was no immediate trace of Johnson's body at the scene of the ambush Wednesday.

"The army have chopped Elmer up into little pieces by now," one rebel source said.

Johnson previously led an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow President Samuel Doe in 1985 and escaped from Monrovia after a gun battle.

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Doe, a former master sergeant, seized power in a coup in 1980. Taylor's rebels, estimated at about 4,000 men, accuse Doe's government of corruption, brutality and ruining the economy of the West African nation.

Four U.S. ships are anchored off the Liberian coast to rescue Americans and other Western nationals if they are unable to evacuate by air. The State Department Monday urged U.S. nationals to leave before the situation deteriorates further. Some 1,100 to 1,200 U.S. business people, missionaries and their families live in Liberia.

The State Department said Tuesday that attempts to negotiate a solution to the conflict have failed. More than 1,000 people have died and tens of thousands have been made homeless since the rebellion began in northern Nimba County in December.

Bodies littered the streets of Buchanan. Dogs roamed the rubble as rebel troops ambled through the city looting shops for beer and Coca Cola.

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