COTTON TREE, Liberia — Thousands of panicked civilians toting hastily gathered possessions streamed toward Liberia's capital on Saturday, fleeing artillery explosions that West African peacekeepers said came from government militias.
Even as calm spreads in the capital, Monrovia, fighting and banditry have continued in the countryside despite a peace deal between the government and rebels. Many in the exodus on the road from Buchanan, a rebel-held port city in the south, pleaded for peacekeepers to leave bases in Monrovia and deploy throughout the country.
Families hurried with bundled sleeping mats and cooking pots on their heads after fleeing from the town of Compound One, between Buchanan and Monrovia, and about 100 miles from the capital.
"Heavy artillery. Bang, bang, boom!" said Joseph Boyeah, a teacher. "They started, so we packed ... and left."
Liberia's two rebel movements and government have signed a peace accord made possible by the exile of former President Charles Taylor.
A West African peace mission, recently joined by a small contingent of U.S. Marines, has quelled fighting in the capital. But peacekeepers are just beginning to make initial fact-finding forays beyond Monrovia.
"There's gunfire all night," said the Rev. Samuel Lloyd, a 30-year-old pastor who was among those fleeing.
A short time later, refugees welcomed the sight of a small contingent of peacekeepers barreling past them in trucks and armored personnel carriers, bound for the scene of the reported clashes.
Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea told Associated Press that government forces had been attacked by rebels near Buchanan. But Col. Theophilus Tawiah, chief of staff of the West African peacekeepers, blamed government forces and said rebels were holding to their cease-fire position.
Guns were quiet in the area on Saturday, Tawiah said, adding that he believed government fighters fired into the air to chase people from their homes.
Government forces have been accused of staging attacks on towns to scare off residents and then looting homes and businesses.