President George W. Bush ordered US troops to take up positions off Liberia as mortar bombs pounded Monrovia in fighting between the government and rebels that killed another 23 people and wounded some 200.
As Bush stepped up backing for a planned West African peacekeeping mission, the rebels declared an immediate ceasefire on Friday but vowed to defend positions after a day in which shells struck schools packed with refugees and near a hospital.
A reporter in Monrovia said he could still hear mortar bombs slamming into the city and gunfire after the truce declaration, made on the eve of the anniversary on which freed American slaves founded Liberia in 1847 in the name of liberty.
The rebels and forces loyal to President Charles Taylor have been battling for more than a week for control of the coastal capital as West African states discuss deploying peacekeepers.
But no date has been set and US officials said warships with American troops were seven to 10 days sailing time away. Diplomats in the region said they believed Nigerian peacekeepers would arrive by the end of next week.
"We are deeply concerned the condition of the Liberian people is getting worse and worse and worse," Bush told reporters in Washington as Friday's deaths added to a government-issued toll of several hundred in the past few days.
"Today I did order for our military in limited numbers to head into the area to help [the deployment of West African peacekeepers] to relieve human suffering," Bush said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan kept up Washington's vagueness on whether it planned to put combat troops on the ground in Liberia. "We'll continue to assess what the US role is in supporting [West African peacekeepers]," he said.
In Monrovia, few traumatized residents had much strength to celebrate news that US warships with troops were on their way as they searched for food and shelter from bombs and bullets.
"We feel so happy. I just want to appeal to the Americans to move as quickly as possible so that more people do not die," Harry Bull said outside the US embassy.
Liberians believe the US has a moral obligation to save a country founded by freed American slaves that has been crippled by nearly 14 years of almost non-stop civil war.
Friday's fighting marked a bloody escalation in the seesaw battle for Monrovia that started last weekend as rebels bent on toppling Taylor launched their third assault since June.
Scattered belongings lay amid pools of blood and bodies were covered with white sheets at Newport Junior High School, where hundreds of displaced people had sought shelter. Mortar bombs struck the school on Friday, killing eight people.
Among the dead was 11-year-old Vaani Rogers, who like others had ventured out in search of water just after 7am, hoping any new fighting would not have started early in the day.
"He went out with the kettle to get water to wash his face. I heard the rocket and I called him `Vaani' but he was dead," said his father Morris. "I'm just crying."