President Charles Taylor's forces fought back into Liberia's second city yesterday, vowing to oust rebels whose capture of the strategic port marked a major setback for the embattled leader.
Rebels seized Buchanan, southeast of the capital Monrovia, on Monday, leaving Taylor without a seaport to ship vital supplies of fuel and food. Rebels also hold the capital Monrovia's port, and are battling on a third front in the center of the country.
"Right now we are fighting in central Buchanan. They are not making it easy, but our men are beating them back," Defense Minister Daniel Chea said by satellite phone as bursts of gunfire resounded in the background.
The upsurge in fighting cast a cloud over plans to deploy West African peacekeepers to Monrovia, where hundreds of thousands of desperate people are caught in the crossfire as rebels and government forces wrestle for control.
Food is running out in the capital, where people scurried through the potholed streets in search of what little nourishment there was, crouching low to avoid the bullets. Others killed cats and dogs for meat.
Buchanan, a major timber port, is less than 100km from the main international airport which is Taylor's last major strategic card.
There was no immediate independent confirmation of where the fighting had reached on the ground.
Rebels surged forward on several fronts on Monday, tightening the noose around Taylor, a former warlord who has been indicted for war crimes by an international court and who now controls barely a third of his own country.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo told the BBC his country was ready to send 1,500 peacekeepers to Liberia, but needed a commitment of outside help first.
A spokesman for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said yesterday it had sent a letter to the warring parties to urge them to observe an immediate ceasefire.
Sunny Ugoh said if a truce were in place, a reconnaissance team led by the commander of the peacekeeping force could go into Liberia within 48 hours.
Liberians, whose country was founded by freed American slaves 150 years ago, have also been pleading for the US to intervene but so far the world's superpower has only promised logistical support for an African force.
The capture of Buchanan marked the reawakening of a smaller rebel group known as Model (Movement for Democracy in Liberia) and ratcheted up the pressure on Taylor, who has promised to step down when peacekeepers arrive.
The rebels fighting in Monrovia belong to the main rebel faction, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. Both groups want Taylor out as soon as possible.
The inch-by-inch battling for control of key bridges in Monrovia over the past 11 days has killed hundreds of civilians -- caught by stray bullets or felled by hot shrapnel from mortar bombs lobbed haphazardly into the city center.