Marines secure US embassy in Liberia after attack

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US marines were flown in to secure the American embassy in Monrovia yesterday after it came under mortar fire and at least 70 people were reported killed in fierce battles in the Liberian capital.

As the Pentagon readied more than 4,000 troops for a possible peace-keeping intervention, marines who had been stationed in neighbouring Sierra Leone leapt out of helicopters to protect the compound. In the bloodiest day of fighting in two months, 25 people were killed at an American diplomatic compound across the street from the embassy, as mortars pounded the diplomatic quarter. Three people at the embassy were injured.

More than 10,000 Liberians had taken refuge in the diplomatic compound from the fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President, Charles Taylor.

An angry crowd of Liberians laid out 18 mangled bodies, one of them headless, in front of the embassy building, demanding American intervention. "We are going to die for nothing," the crowd shouted.

With the three-year civil war seemingly moving towards a climax, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, signed an order to redeploy a three-vessel naval and marine force from the Horn of Africa to the Mediterranean, from where it could reach the west African country in little more than a week. But President George Bush repeated that he had not yet decided on when or how large a peace-keeping force would be dispatched to Liberia. "We continue to monitor the situation very closely," Mr Bush said.

The rebel offensive to oust Mr Taylor has now reached the heart of the capital. It was not clear which side fired the mortars that smashed into the US embassy compound, and the Pentagon said it did not appear to be a deliberate target.

Aid workers and journalists were evacuated by the helicopter that brought the marines. Eleanor Monbiot of World Vision, who was among those being evacuated said her organisation had been forced to stop distributing food on Friday. Up to half a million people have crammed into Monrovia in recent weeks to escape the fighting. A million people in total are thought to be displaced, many in camps north of the capital.

Clustered on street corners yesterday, Liberians listened on radios to news of the American marines being deployed to defend the US embassy. The 41 soldiers were deployed from a base in Spain at the request of the US ambassador to Liberia, John Blaney, to help protect the embassy. But their arrival only fuelled local anger at Washington's unwilingness to commit a larger force to help impose a ceasefire.

The US indicated it would only send peace-keepers after a force from other west African countries, led by Nigeria, had moved to restore order. Washington says Mr Taylor must first leave the country.

The Liberian leader has accepted in principle an offer of asylum from Nigeria ­ but says he will leave only when a peacekeeping operation is in place.

The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, urged Washington to deploy troops "before it is too late" and warned rebel groups that any seizure of power would not be recognised by the international community.