As the US considers whether to send troops to Liberia, the war-battered country's main rebel movement on Friday threatened a "fire fight" with any peacekeepers deployed there before President Charles Taylor steps down.
The strongly worded threat came amid mounting security fears in the capital, where hundreds of war veterans protested Friday outside the US and EU missions, complaining of attacks against Taylor's followers by opponents emboldened by his expected departure.
The rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy has said it would welcome peacekeepers and wants US troops to participate. But if the force comes with Taylor still in place, the rebels said it would only strengthen his ability to hang on to power.
"Any troop deployed before the departure of Taylor must be prepared for a fire fight," the group said in a statement.
Taylor, who is wanted for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, has promised to resign and accept asylum in Nigeria -- but only after an international stabilization force arrives to ensure an orderly transition.
US President George W. Bush, in Africa this week on a five-nation tour, faces growing international pressure to send US troops to Liberia, founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said a decision could come in days.
West African nations plan to send more than 1,500 troops to Liberia within 10 days, Ghana's President John Kufuor announced at an African Union summit in Mozambique. The regional economic bloc headed by Kufuor had previously said it would contribute 1,000 soldiers in two weeks.
West African governments also want the US to send troops.
Bush has remained noncommittal, but has pledged not to overextend American forces already heavily involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. He has also repeated his demand that Taylor resign as a first step to restoring peace.
"Taylor's government is widely considered to be on its last legs," the rebels said on Friday. "Taylor must leave now -- before any deployment."
As momentum builds against Taylor, about 500 Liberian veterans -- many of whom fought with him in Liberia's last 1989-96 civil war -- protested noisily on Friday outside the US and European missions in Monrovia.
The ex-fighters, some on crutches or in wheelchairs, appealed to the US to help create a unified army to help fill the void if Taylor steps down. At least four ex-fighters have been seriously assaulted in the past week in the increasingly restive capital, members of the veterans' association said.
They also demanded that charges be dropped against Taylor -- "for the sake of peace," said Bobby Moore, a 42-year-old army medic. "If they aren't ... there will be more bloodshed."