MONROVIA, Liberia — Rebels battling to oust President Charles Taylor entered the capital Saturday, pushing tens of thousands of civilians and retreating soldiers farther downtown.
Exploding rockets continued into the night after a day of heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Rebels crossed the St. Paul Bridge that marks the boundary of the city, putting them within three miles of the city center.
Dressed in full combat gear, Taylor took to the streets of Monrovia and called on his troops to fight until the last man. He vowed to stick with his soldiers to the bitter end.
"I say to you, my people, I will be here with you," Taylor said. "I will stay here with you. I will go no place until I am convinced that the international forces are here and in sufficient quantities [so] that I can no longer worry how many of you will die or how many of you can expect to be blown away by some bomb.
"I am with you to the end," the president continued. "This is my country. I live with you and I die with this."
Rebel leaders attending peace talks in the nearby Ghanaian capital of Accra denied that they had plans to seize Monrovia and accused Taylor's troops of provoking a fight.
"The government has sent people out to harass our people and attack us," said Gen. Joe Wylie, a senior military advisor for the rebel movement known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. He spoke by phone from Ghana. "We are not going to attack Monrovia," he said, even as rebels troops were advancing.
Civilians were not prepared to take any chances. As dawn broke Saturday, thousands straggled into town from Monrovia's far-flung northwestern suburbs: men and boys with sacks of clothes and mattresses balanced atop their heads; women, babies strapped to their backs, toting plastic buckets stuffed with meager bundles of their belongings.
"We just heard launching sounds, firing sounds," said Bernice Brown, 23, a large blue travel bag perched upon her head and her 3-year-old daughter, Maima, tied to her back with cloth. "I took whatever I could and left."
The young mother said she intended to take refuge in a school building or other public institution, like thousands of others who have sought shelter. She hadn't seen her husband since the last time the rebels advanced on the city in June, and their family was forced to flee their home near the St. Paul Bridge. "I'm afraid," Brown said. "I don't have anybody but me."
With the country already struggling to care for more than 100,000 refugees, Saturday's outpouring made a grave situation worse. Some families had walked for almost two hours to escape the gunfire and explosions near their homes. Many said they would seek protection in the homes of relatives, while others made their way to the vicinity of the fortified U.S. Embassy compound, where a rocket exploded last month killing 21 people.
"We would have loved to have stayed at home, but everyone in our community was leaving," said Momo Tunkarah, 18, who abandoned his home in a bustling Monrovia suburb after the sounds of explosions began to get closer.
Bands of government militia boys, rifles and grenade launchers slung over their shoulders, swaggered down the street against the human tide. Some started to erect makeshift roadblocks of tires, stones and wooden planks. Others gathered in rowdy clusters along the roadside. By noon, most of the suburban sidewalks had emptied.
Other government fighters, many of them teenagers smoking marijuana and donning women's wigs, piled into pickup trucks that raced out of the city toward the front.
Liberian Gen. Timothy "Get Out" Massaquor, 26, said that for now his soldiers were "on the defensive." The rebels "are attacking," said Massaquor, who has been a combatant for the past 10 years. "We will reply."
It was the third time in the past two months that rebels had entered the capital. Twice before, international pressure had forced them out, averting what local and foreign military strategists predicted would have been even worse violence.
The attack also raised questions about the likelihood of an international peacekeeping force.
Washington is considering a limited deployment of U.S. troops to Liberia, to help bring peace to a nation settled by freed American slaves. But the White House insists that such a move would depend on Taylor stepping down and leaving this country, where 14 years of intermittent war have killed and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Taylor has accepted an offer to live in Nigeria, but says he will leave Liberia only when peacekeepers arrive, a decision the rebels oppose.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Saturday that the U.S. would continue to evaluate the developments in Liberia. "The discussions are continuing," he said in a statement. "And the president is continuing to assess the situation."