Fighting rages as Liberia talks peace

Rebels and government forces battled for control of Monrovia's port yesterday while West African leaders insisted a peacekeeping force was on its way.

Despite the fighting at the port and sporadic explosions and gunfire in the Liberian capital through the night, rebels said they were putting in place a ceasefire that they had promised since Tuesday. "It takes a couple days for the fighting to calm down," a rebel leader, Charles Benney, said.

"We don't want to take the country by force. We want to do it by negotiated settlement. A military takeover isn't in anyone's interest," added Mr Benney, who is fighting to topple President Charles Taylor.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed in fighting in the city since Saturday. Battles have cut off the main supplies of water and food, and now the port is in rebel hands.

Government commanders have spoken of a major counter-offensive to retake the port before the expected arrival of Nigerian peacekeepers.

However, the Defence Minister, Daniel Chea, yesterday denied any such plans existed. "We're only defending our lives and our people," Mr Chea said. Of the promised deployment of peacekeepers, he said: "When we see them, we will believe."

West African leaders announced on Wednesday that they would send two Nigerian battalions, up to 1,300 men in all, to Liberia within days. This is to be the vanguard of what West Africans said should be a 3,250-member force.

The United States has yet to say whether it will contribute to the peacekeeping force.The United Nations and European and African leaders have urged the US to participate.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of West Africa's regional bloc, Ecowas, renewed promises yesterday that the first Nigerian peacekeepers would arrive "within a week".

West African states have talked for weeks of deployment of a peace force to Liberia. Rebels are in the midst of their third offensive in two months on the capital, a battered city of one million inhabitants which is further crowded now with hundreds of thousands of trapped refugees.

Rebels are battling to oust President Taylor, who launched Liberia, once one of sub-Saharan Africa's most prosperous countries, into 14 years of near-perpetual conflict in 1989.

Mr Taylor and his aides have made repeated announcements since June that he would step down, only to later renege.

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