MONROVIA, Liberia – Rebels waging a brutal battle for control of Liberia's capital announced a cease-fire (search) Tuesday, a day after mortars rained down on the city in some of the bloodiest fighting in three years of civil war.
At the same time, West African defense chiefs were trying to work out details of a long-awaited peacekeeping force many Liberians believe could have averted Monday's carnage.
Despite the order to stop fighting, rebels traded machine-gun and grenade fire near three bridges connecting Monrovia's port to the northern suburbs and downtown -- symbolic heart of the country and site of President Charles Taylor (search)'s offices.
Sporadic shelling also persisted, with one round striking a house across the street from the U.S. Embassy compound. Shrapnel rained down on a second house next-door.
Three people were killed and two seriously wounded near the embassy. Grief-stricken relatives gathered around pools of blood and held up mortar fragments.
"Our sisters and brothers are dying for nothing," said James Guanue, the brother of one of the dead. "We really need a peacekeeping force to come."
Aid workers were removing the last of the bodies dragged in front of the U.S. Embassy on Monday by enraged residents, demanding to know when the United States would send troops to the country founded by freed American slaves more than 150 years ago.
There has been an outcry from aid groups and Oxfam said in a statement that "the delay in sending peacekeeping troops to Liberia is costing lives."
"Thousands of people are crowded into churches, schools and other temporary shelters without running water or food," the Rome-based World Food Program said in a statement.
"Many of them need help now but as long as the fighting continues there is no way that we can get supplies to them," said the agency's officiial in Monrovia, Gregory Blamo.
Hospital officials and aid groups counted more than 100 killed Monday, but the toll was believed to be much higher. Defense Minister Daniel Chea placed it at well over 600.
Chea demanded the international community either send peacekeepers immediately or lift an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations to punish Taylor's regime for trading guns for diamonds with Sierra Leone's rebels. "Our people are being held hostage," he said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the United States had not decided whether to send troops.
"The situation in Liberia now is dynamic," he said in Washington. "We're continuing to monitor events closely."
Three U.S. ships with 2,000 Marines and 2,500 sailors aboard moved toward the Mediterranean Sea, where they were to await orders. Typically, the 2,000 Marines would go ashore.
Some Pentagon officials said President Bush was inclined to send in a smaller contingent -- perhaps several hundred Marines -- enough to provide command and communications support for the West African force.
On Monday, half of a team of 41 Marines arrived to protect the embassy, and their helicopters evacuated 23 foreigners, most of them humanitarian workers. The rest of the group was delayed by the mortar attack, and there was no indication when they would arrive.
Meanwhile, government and rebel delegates meeting in nearby Accra, Ghana, struggled to meet a deadline Tuesday to agree to details of a unity government promised under a repeatedly violated June 17 cease-fire.
Despite continued differences, Charles Benny of the main rebel movement, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (search), expressed satisfaction with recent progress on the peacekeeping force. "Our troops are being told to cease fire," he said.
The government, however, said they have seen no change.
"We do not trust them and they've continued to fight us all day, using the same weaponry. We have seen no change," said Taylor's spokesman, Vain Paasawe.
West African defense chiefs were gathering in Dakar, Senegal, to finalize the force's composition and deployment schedule, Nigerian army spokesman Col. Chukwuemeka Onwuamaegbu said. Foreign ministers were also there.
One option, he said, was to divert to Liberia some 700 to 1,000 Nigerian troops from Sierra Leone, where the soldiers have taken part in a U.N. peacekeeping force.
Nigeria, Mali and Ghana are willing to contribute troops, but need foreign financial backing, Nigerian presidential spokeswoman Remi Oyo said.
The participants also want other countries -- including South Africa, Morocco and the United States -- to send soldiers.
"We don't have any timetable for when the U.S. might send troops. But diplomatic talks are going on by the hour and things can change rather quickly," Oyo said.
European diplomats said a cease-fire was key to any deployment -- particularly if the Americans are to be persuaded to participate.
"One of the factors is whether there is really going to be a peace agreement to supervise," Hans Dahlgren, undersecretary in the Swedish Foreign Ministry and the European Union's special regional envoy, told Swedish Radio.
Bush has made any deployment of U.S. troops conditional on the departure of Taylor, a former warlord indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone.
Taylor has pledged to resign and accept an offer of asylum in Nigeria -- but only after peacekeepers arrive to ensure an orderly transition.
Since sweeping into northern Monrovia on Saturday, rebels have made repeated attempts to cross into downtown, which lies on a strip of land between a river and the Atlantic.
Residents took advantage of a lull in hostilities Tuesday to search for food and water in the capital -- still in ruins from the 1989-96 civil war.
Sylvester Coleman, a seminary student, emerged from his basement, where 63 relatives and neighbors sought shelter, to look for rice. But at four times the usual price, it was too expensive. So he trudged home in the pouring rain, empty-handed.
Passing the U.S. Embassy, where bodies were piled under plastic sheeting, he paused. Twenty-seven people were killed Monday when a mortar slammed into an embassy residential compound/
"If the American forces were on the ground, this would not have happened," he said.