Rebels pushed further yesterday into Liberia's war-ravaged capital where they exchanged mortar and machine-gun fire with government troops in a battle for control of two key bridges leading to the city center after President Charles Taylor vowed to fight "to the last man."
Rebels now control the port area and the northern part of the city in fighting that has sent tens of thousands of frightened residents scurrying for shelter. Government gunmen were deployed on rooftops downtown and around the bridges.
The rebel assault -- the third against Monrovia since last month -- shattered hopes that a speedy deployment of international peacekeepers could avert fresh violence in a country where hundreds of thousands have died in two savage civil wars.
Combatants wearing shorts and flip-flops traded mortar, grenade and machine-gun fire on the two bridges leading into downtown Monrovia from the port area.
"The bridges are being well defended so far," said Taylor's spokesman Vaanii Paasawe. "Things are shifting fast. Shells are falling."
Paasawe said Taylor was busy defending himself yesterday.
"It's a matter of life or death," he said.
Officials from the main rebel movement, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, issued a statement yesterday saying they would remain committed to a June 17 ceasefire, but proposed the ceasefire line should be established at the St. Paul River, marking the northern boundary of the city.
Rebel forces were already well beyond that point when the statement was released.
On Saturday, Taylor repeated his pledge to step down and accept asylum in Nigeria, but only after international peacekeepers arrive in sufficient numbers to prevent a chaotic transition.
The warlord-turned-president vowed to "fight street-to-street, house-to-house" until the rebels are defeated.
"I will never desert the city, I will never desert my people," he said. "I will stand and fight to the last man until they stop killing my own people."
On Saturday, mortars slammed into the neighborhood surrounding the US Embassy compound and a Liberian security guard there was shot and injured.
Meanwhile, thousands of residents streamed through the streets of a neighborhood housing diplomatic compounds seeking shelter behind their gates. The US diplomatic residential compound already is crammed with some 10,000 refugees from two recent rounds of fighting.
The building housing the Catholic-run Veritas radio station was shelled, causing damage to the building but no injuries.
US Ambassador to Liberia John Blaney urged the rebels not to advance further into Monrovia and to refocus on peace talks in Ghana, which seek to reach agreement on a transition government.
"Any lasting peace must be based on a broad political understanding and fighting government forces in Monrovia does not change that fact," Blaney said.
A French news photographer, Patrick Robert, was shot in the chest and arm covering fighting at one of the bridges. Robert, who was on assignment for Time magazine, suffered life-threatening injuries and was being treated at an International Committee of the Red Cross trauma unit in Monrovia, a Time spokesperson said.
Robert was reported to be in stable condition yesterday, although he was still not well enough to be safely evacuated.
Meanwhile, rebels have grouped foreigners into one house in the port area where they are being treated well, according to businessmen in the area who spoke on condition of anonymity.