MONROVIA, Liberia — Gen. Butt Naked, a youthful commander with a self-given nom de guerre, charges into battle each day stark nude except for a pair of boots. His men are allowed to wear underpants.
Not far away, Gen. George Bush and Gen. Saddam Hussein command fighters who sometimes attack with such weapons as butter knives, golf clubs, tennis rackets and soldering irons. One youth even uses a can of insecticide.
Often before the shooting starts, the two sides stand at opposite ends of the street and hurl crude taunts and curses at one another.
So goes the sad, strange war for the capital of this tortured West African nation. A vicious seven-year civil war exploded again five weeks ago, and the decrepit seaside city founded by freed American slaves and named for America's fifth president, James Monroe, has been convulsed ever since in a frenzy of looting, deadly firefights and brutal executions.
After a three-day lull, fierce fighting suddenly erupted again before dawn Tuesday with the crackle of automatic rifle and machine-gun fire, the whomp of mortars and the sharp explosions of grenade launchers as hundreds of gunmen from opposing factions rampaged in the once-elegant Mamba Point diplomatic enclave.
By midday, at least 15 bodies of so-called soldiers, killed in the cross-fire or hacked to death while wounded, littered the dusty streets. Black smoke poured into the still, steamy air from fires in the now-devastated business district, where virtually every office and shop has been emptied and burned-out and shot-up cars are everywhere.
"It was the heaviest volume of shooting I've heard yet," said U.S. Marine Col. Wayne Forbush, commander of the 270 Marines now guarding 18 diplomats and six other Americans still left at the beleaguered U.S. Embassy compound.
Except for its ferocity, Tuesday's battle was like many before. About two dozen ragtag fighters from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, loyal to U.S.-educated warlord Charles Taylor, gathered at 4 a.m. in the courtyard of the Mamba Point Hotel to gather courage and pass out ammunition.
Another group of about 40 fighters met at the intersection of streets now known as Crack Alley and Death Row, about 100 yards from the embassy gate and down the road from a dirt path nicknamed Highway to Hell.
Then, with little apparent coordination or planning, the two groups ran forward--often firing wildly from the hip--against roadblocks and positions manned by the better-trained and better-armed forces loyal to renegade government minister Roosevelt Johnson and made up mostly of ethnic Krahns.
The Krahns quickly pushed the offensive back, chanting and singing as they advanced. As usual, both sides executed their captives along the way and looted the bodies.
Inside the embassy, the only Western diplomatic presence left in the city, Marines armed with 50-caliber machine guns peered out from eight sandbagged positions. Atop the ambassador's house, Sgt. James Mingus looked up from his M-40 rifle to describe how the NPFL troops had executed a prisoner shortly before outside a bamboo bar the Marines call Arby's.
"They killed him. Then they took his pants and boots and took him to the beach and buried him," Mingus said.
The gray sand beach in front of the Mamba Point Hotel is called Body Beach because corpses are dumped or buried by the surf nearly every day. On Monday, a man was dragged to the beach, shot in the head and left for the wild dogs and fat white birds that pick at the entrails and bones.
For journalists staying at the three-story hotel, suddenly on the front line, the battle raging on the street outside threatened to come in when a dozen or so victorious Krahn fighters, armed with assault rifles and shoulder-fired grenade launchers, tried to bully their way upstairs.
As they had done before with the NPFL, however, the hotel's Lebanese-born owners quickly made a deal with the group.
"The problem is not the fighting," explained owner Imad Aoun. "It's the people who come afterward to loot. They don't care who you are or what nationality. They just want to steal and to kill."
The U.S. Embassy has evacuated 2,300 Americans and other foreign nationals, including most of the Lebanese and Indian businessmen who run the economy, since the start of the latest crisis. U.S. officials say about 15 Americans are known to have stayed in the city.
Liberia's torment is obvious among the 20,000 or so refugees crammed into a former U.S. Embassy residential park. Most sleep on the bare rocks and mud under blue tarps and tents pegged to stumps and rocks.
Narrow dirt paths in the squalid camp are clogged with stalls selling the best of Monrovia's plundered goods, including Hewlett-Packard laser printers, Reebok boots still carrying their price tags, air conditioners and vast supplies of medicine.
"The fighters, they broke down my front door and threatened to kill my family," said Maxim Richards, 49, a now-dispossessed businessman. "They took my truck. They took my car. They burned my house."