Taylor avoids peace envoys in Liberia

West African peace envoys flew into Liberia yesterday to press President Charles Taylor to act on his promise to stand down, while new fighting between rebels and government forces erupted in the capital, Monrovia.

But Mr Taylor unexpectedly left the city while the team prepared for a planned meeting yesterday afternoon.

The west African delegation was told that Mr Taylor had travelled to the south-eastern port of Buchanan, where his forces have also been battling rebels. His unannounced departure marked his first known travel to a war zone outside the city since the rebel siege began two weeks ago.

The five-strong team said that it would wait for Mr Taylor. Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghana's Foreign Minister, said: "We're going to wait until we can sit down and talk to him."

The delegation was carrying a message from west African heads of state that the first peace-keepers would be deployed in Liberia on Monday, and that Mr Taylor, who is blamed for 14 years of conflict in the region, had to leave the country by Thursday.

US and UN officials have been pressing for the deployment of the peace force, and for Mr Taylor's departure.

Just before the delegation arrived, a crowded area of Monrovia was shelled. Four children and five adults died when their house was hit, aid workers said. The shelling marked the end of a one-day lull while the city awaited the arrival of peace-keepers.

Fighting was concentrated near Monrovia's three bridges. Rebels have fought to cross from the port to the centre of the city, where government buildings are located.

The delegation, which was kept waiting at the airport, had flown to Liberia to remind Mr Taylor of the declaration of his fellow heads of state, issued at a west Africa summit in Accra, Ghana, about the crisis in Liberia.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the executive secretary of Economic Community of West African States, said: "The decision was very clear in its plain meaning: We will put in the troops on Monday. We expect him to be able to leave within three days. It's not a coup d'état - it's a constitutional change of power.

"He had made public undertakings, and that's what the leaders of the region expect him to do."