Tens of thousands of residents of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, were forced out of their homes yesterday by a hail of mortar bombs and gunfire as rebel fighters thrust into the city.
Last night, the Liberian government claimed at least 20 civilians had been killed in the third rebel attack on the city in the past two months. The two previous attacks killed hundreds last month.
President Charles Taylor remained defiant in the face of the onslaught, saying he would not honour his pledge to move to Nigeria to claim asylum until international peacekeepers arrived in sufficient numbers.
Brandishing three bullets, he told reporters: "I will stand and fight to the last man until they stop killing my own people."
President Taylor's refusal to leave without peacekeepers heightens the possibility of a bloody end to the civil war.
US President George Bush has said he will consider sending peacekeeping troops to the country only if Mr Taylor leaves.
Yesterday, rebels streamed across a river bridge they had earlier wrested from government troops and took positions a few miles from the city centre, which they hammered with volleys of mortar rounds.
"We have pushed the rebels back from the bridge and towards the port area. The fighting is heavy," Liberian army chief of staff, General Benjamin Yeaten, said.
Diplomats said a French photographer was seriously wounded.
Many of Mr Taylor's troops said they did not want to risk their lives for a man who has already said he would leave. "What are we fighting for?" said one, Commander Klon. "The man we are trying to defend has decided to go. So why should we fight to die?"