Liberia's capital trembled in fear of a new bloodbath yesterday after rebels smashed through a vital line of defense for President Charles Taylor's forces and advanced to within a few kilometers of the city center.
Punching through Taylor's defenses at the strategically vital Po River bridge, rebels pushed on to reach the St. Paul's river crossing on the outskirts of the city. "The rebels are at the bridge," one soldier said.
It was unclear whether rebels had gained control of the key crossing point just 9km from the center of the war-weary capital.
Thousands of residents -- some carrying bundles, others piling possessions into wheelbarrows -- fled towards the center of Monrovia from neighborhoods in the northwestern districts, fearing a repeat of bloodshed last month that killed hundreds.
The fall of the Po River bridge, just 12km from Monrovia's outskirts, punctured hopes that a West African force, and possibly US troops, could save the ramshackle city and let Taylor step down.
"People are just moving, people are terrified, we're just hearing the sound of firing and we have to move," said one of the fleeing residents, Arthur Tayers.
Last month, when rebels belonging to Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) captured the bridge, they were in Monrovia within a day. Hundreds of people were killed and tens of thousands driven from their homes before Taylor's forces managed to push the rebels back.
The sight of fighters racing out towards the front sounded alarms again for civilians who know they are likely to be the main victims of unruly combatants after nearly 14 years of on-and-off violence.
Washington said it was deeply concerned about the latest escalation of violence, saying the only way forward was through the peace process now underway in Ghana.
Prices for fuel more than doubled on Friday as filling stations disconnected pumps to prevent looting. Shopkeepers battened their steel doors and people rushed for home.
"I am worried about this fighting, not for me but for my family," said army Sergeant John Yealah. "I don't know what the rebels are up to because they have agreed a ceasefire and they are still fighting."
A military adviser with LURD said they did not intend to take control of Monrovia.
"The aim is to take the [Po River] bridge," said Joe Wiley, speaking in Accra, Ghana where peace talks are taking place.
"The aim is not to overrun the city, but we want to prevent Taylor's forces from coming to take pot shots at us," he said.
Earlier, LURD in Liberia issued a statement saying that they would have no choice but to seize Monrovia if Taylor's forces did not cease "unprovoked attacks" on their fighters.
There have often been divergences between declarations by LURD delegates at the peace talks and commanders on the ground.
Taylor's government and rebels signed a ceasefire on June 17 at the Accra talks, but the truce has repeatedly been violated.
Wanted for war crimes by Sierra Leone's international court and holding barely a third of the country, Taylor has said he will only head into exile in Nigeria once foreign forces arrive.
But there have been few signs of movement.
A West African survey team's arrival was delayed again on Friday and only after it has begun mapping the ceasefire line will troops be able to deploy. Taylor has said he will not go until they do.