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Liberia Pushes Back Rebels, Calls for U.S. Aid

With fighting receded for now in Liberia's devastated capital, President Charles Taylor joined his desperate people and called for American help to end the war in his bloodied West African nation.

But Taylor, making a victory tour of his shelled capital after chasing rebels out this latest time, gave no sign he would heed President Bush's calls that he step down.

"We ask the international community, most specifically the United States, to do everything within its power to help Liberia and Liberians out of this mess," Taylor said in a radio address Friday, hours after fighting stilled.

Taylor, an indicted U.N. war crimes suspect, spoke after rebels pulled back from the western edge of the capital. The move ended a four-day siege that killed an estimated 500 civilians.

Liberia's main port, on the west side of this city of 1 million people, has repeatedly proved the stopping point for rebels in their three-year war to topple Taylor.

During his radio address, thousands of Liberians rallied outside the U.S. Embassy, pleading for help.

"George Bush we are dying," one sign said. The crowd earlier had laid out the bodies of children killed in the bombardment of the capital before the embassy.

"We need you now, America," another sign said.

Taylor, in his address, again raised the possibility that he might yield power, meeting the key demand of rebels and fulfilling a pledge he made earlier this month to step aside in the interest of peace.

But he barely mentioned leaving.

"The peace that I seek should be a soft landing, where there will be a cease-fire that will be monitored," Taylor said.

"I will make absolutely sure that this kind of murder and mayhem ... will not come upon you if and when I am not on the scene," Taylor said.

West African leaders promised at least a 5,000-member peace force for warring Liberia after a cease-fire has been reached, and said France had offered troops and logistical support.

Ghana President John Kufuor announced the peace force late Friday, after the arrival of French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on a two-day visit to the West African nation.

"Any sacrifice would be made to restore peace to Liberia," said Kufuor, current head of West Africa's regional leaders bloc. He said France was ready to assist with troops, as well as "other logistics."

In Paris, authorities of the French Defense and Foreign ministries said they had no information on any French assistance to such a peace force. De Villepin and Ghana officials were in closed meetings Saturday, making it impossible to immediately reach the French foreign minister for further comment.

France colonized many of the countries in West Africa, and traditionally has strong ties to the region.

Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century, and sees itself still as having strongest links to the United States. However, Washington so far has shown no willingness to assist a peace force for Liberia, as Liberians have asked and U.N. and European diplomats have urged.

On Thursday, however, Bush said Taylor had to leave. "President Taylor needs to step down so that his country can be spared further bloodshed," Bush said.

For the first time in five days, Monrovia's people slept Friday night without shells and rockets whistling overhead, and awoke to calm Saturday.

Rebels and government forces appeared to have waged a last intense battle for the port Friday morning, before rebels -- under a west African deadline to fall back in line with a June 17 cease-fire -- retreated.

Mortuaries filled as Monrovia's death toll climbed, leaving civilians to hastily bury the dead -- family members, and strangers found on the streets -- on the city's Atlantic Ocean beaches during the fight, at times with rockets slamming into the sand around them.

Health workers tried to deal with growing hunger and disease in the wake of the fighting. With the city's food stocks tied up in the embattled port, rice, flour and other staples had tripled in price, if they could be found at all.

Fighting surged last week after Taylor announced he would stay in power at least through the end of his term in January. His announcement was seen as reneging on pledges made during the peace talks to cede power in the interest of peace.

West African mediators suspended Liberia's month-old peace talks for a week, saying conditions on the ground had made them impossible.

A U.N.-backed indictment disclosed June 4 accused Taylor of crimes against humanity in his backing of rebels in Sierra Leone, who killed tens of thousands and maimed thousands more with machetes in a 10-year campaign to win that country's diamond fields.