Mortar barrages tore apart Liberia's capital as rebels launched the bloodiest fighting to date against government forces, as US Marines at an American embassy compound evacuated foreign aid workers and journalists in helicopters.
Defense Minister Daniel Chea claimed yesterday the death toll was well over 600 people, but there was no way to independently confirm the figure. Aid groups and hospitals have put the number of dead above 90, but say they expect the number to rise.
In a phone interview on Monday, embattled Liberian President Charles Taylor repeated his call for a promised West African peacekeeping force to arrive quickly to "bring some sanity" to Liberia, which is torn by a decade of strife.
But Taylor said the best way to ensure stability was through US troops on the ground, in addition to the Marines guarding the US Embassy in his nation, which was founded by freed American slaves more than a century ago.
"An American contingent would be excellent," he said.
A storm of mortars rocked residential neighborhoods along with two US Embassy compounds in the rebels' third attempt to take Monrovia -- Taylor's last stronghold. An American journalist was among the injured.
American helicopters landed in the embassy compound in driving rain Monday, dropping off about half of a 41-member Marine security team. The troops evacuated about 23 foreign humanitarian workers and journalists.
Clutching bags and backpacks, the evacuees ran to the aircraft as Marines and embassy officials shouted: "Go! Go!" Among them were the UN's last seven foreign staffers, who had returned to Monrovia just two weeks earlier during a lull in fighting.
US officials announced that 4,500 more American service members have been ordered to position themselves closer to Liberia to prepare for an evacuation of Americans on peacekeeping or some other mission if necessary.
"We're concerned about our people," US President George W. Bush said in Crawford, Texas. He indicated he had not yet decided the size of a US force that might be sent to help a promised West African peacekeeping mission in Liberia.
The US State Department criticized the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy for "reckless and indiscriminate shooting" and appealed to neighboring African countries to guard against weapons going to Liberia.
Joe Wylie, a rebel delegate at peace talks in Ghana, said the government was also firing shells.
The rebels were "not responsible for shooting mortars into the embassy," Wylie said. "We have our backs to the US Embassy. ... They [government forces] were shooting at us."
During 2 1/2 hours of sustained mortar fire, a shell slammed into a US Embassy residential compound where some 10,000 terrified Liberians had taken refuge, killing 25 people, aid workers said. Many more were wounded, including two Liberian embassy guards.
Some 65 others were killed in other strikes.
Yesterday, fighting was focused in the port area. Chea said rebels made another attempt to take control of two bridges leading from the port to the downtown area, but that government troops held them off.
Residents, meanwhile, reported a sleepless night of intense looting by fighters.
Early yesterday there was a lull in fighting although sporadic gunfire continued. People took the opportunity to forage for food and water.