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Scenes from Liberia: Horror, chaos and a people pleading for help

At first, Siapha Kiazolu was speechless. He stood on the spot where a mortar shell killed his wife two hours before, and pointed at the thickening pool of blood, the scattered flip-flops, the white body bag. Then he found her hat.

"It hit her in the head," he mumbled, fingering two jagged holes. Siapha dropped the wool hat on the ground, and turned away in pain. Then he clutched his sides in pain and let out a long, desperate wail. As if to mock him, a burst of gunfire crackled in the street outside.

Another day, another atrocity in Liberia's blood-soaked capital Monrovia. As President George Bush and other putative peace-makers dither over how to help, the dying continues.

The soft crumple of shellfire started shortly after dawn. It was the most intense attack since Monday, and the seventh day of battle. More than 15 rounds hit the diplomatic and downtown districts, which are heaving with tens of thousands of displaced people. As ever, the targets were unknown. The first mortar shells splashed into the Atlantic; one landed inside the US embassy compound, hurting nobody. There were no reports of hits on President Charles Taylor's mansion, or on his checkpoints.

But the civilian casualties were all too clear. One struck yards from a Médecins Sans Frontières clinic, killing three. Another landed streets away, in the yard of Newport Junior High School, where Siapha Kiazolu and his wife had been sheltering with hundreds of others. Seven died on the spot, another on the way to hospital. Nigeria has promised peacekeeping troops within a week, and the US made another baby step to an offer of concrete assistance. But for some Monrovians that help will come too late.

"One week is like one million years to us," said Benedict Gray. "I thought Liberia was part of the international community. But we have been deserted by the whole world."

President Bush yesterday ordered the Pentagon to position "appropriate military capabilities" off the Liberian coast to support a West African peacekeeping mission. But he again stopped short of committing Washington to peacekeeping, and again seemed to make the departure of President Charles Taylor a precondition to any intervention. On Thursday the Pentagon said the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, leading a three-ship group carrying 2,300 Marines, had entered the Mediterranean for possible duty. But it is not clear how many troops might be involved, or what they might do.

The US does not want to risk sending soldiers into a civil war. In Washington, the State Department is at odds with the Pentagon, which is stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants to stay out. Colin Powell, Secretary of State, wants the speedy deployment of troops but Gen Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, yesterday recalled the disastrous US relief mission to Somalia in 1993. "It is potentially a very dangerous situation" he said.

For aid workers, there have been too many dashed hopes. "I'm not impressed," said Sam Nagbe of Oxfam. "The US is the world superpower. They have all the logistical and financial might. We expected them to be playing a leading role, not just sending a ship off the coast." Aid workers with Merlin were making sandbags from empty food sacks. Stray bullets hit 55 people in Greystone, a camp opposite the US embassy, on Wednesday and Thursday. "We call them walls of life," said Magnus Wolfe Murray.

He added: "I'm sick to the stomach this has been allowed to happen. I've taken bodies out of Greystone, of little children who were massacred. I know there are complications for the US. But people are dying here."

Regional leaders promised on Wednesday that the first deployment of Nigerian battalions would be within seven days. Authorities spoke of setting a firm deployment date on Thursday but no date was fixed.

Sao Sambola was an official at the Finance Ministry until he fled his home two weeks ago. Liberians had little faith in a West African force, he said, since a 1996 mission when the peacekeepers took part in the looting. But they had little choice. "It is better to loot than for people to die. They should give the Nigerians a mandate.''

By mid afternoon, a strange normality had returned to the diplomatic area, and people poured on the streets to sell food or exchange gossip.

Tenneh Kiazolu stopped to issue a declaration: "You should tell the world we want the peacekeeping force here now. We are tired of suffering. And also tell the warlords: God will reward them tomorrow for killing us Liberians today."