MONROVIA, Liberia – West African leaders arrived in Liberia's bloodied capital under heavy military guard Friday, beginning their mission to press President Charles Taylor (search) to step down as promised and leave his war-ruined nation for exile.
But Taylor unexpectedly left Monrovia (search) before the meeting at his mansion, reportedly heading to the southeastern port of Buchanan, where his forces have battled rebels. It was his first known travel to a war zone outside Monrovia since the rebel siege began here in June.
The West African envoys said they would stay in the capital, nonetheless.
"We're going to wait until we can sit down and talk to him," said Nana Akufo-Addo (search), Ghana's foreign minister, who is among five top West African officials stood up by Taylor.
The delegation carried a message from West African heads of state that the first peacekeepers would deploy in Liberia on Monday and that Taylor, an indicted war-crimes suspect blamed for 14 years of conflict in the region, must leave by Thursday.
Just before the West Africans arrived, new shelling hit a crowded neighborhood of tin-roof homes in the capital, killing five adults and four children, aid workers said.
The volley sparked more combat, sending families fleeing back to hiding places and militia fighters running out in the streets, AK-47s at the ready.
Fighting was concentrated around Monrovia's three key bridges. Rebels since early June have fought to cross from the port to downtown, the last stronghold of Taylor's government.
Rebels and Taylor's forces accused each other in the bombardment.
Meanwhile, foreign envoys waited at the airport — Mohamed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of West Africa's regional leaders' bloc, and government ministers from Ghana, Togo, Senegal and Nigeria, the region's military giant that is contributing the first wave of peacekeepers.
The mission was welcomed by U.S. Ambassador John Blaney, representing the nation that oversaw Liberia's founding in the 19th century by freed slaves.
"The decision was very clear in its plain meaning: We will put in the troops on Monday. We expect him to be able to leave within three days," Chambas told The Associated Press.
"It's not a coup d'etat — it's a constitutional change of power."
Chambas cited Taylor's own repeated pledges to yield power since the rebel siege of Liberia's capital began nearly two months ago.
"He had made public undertakings, and that's what the leaders of the region expect him to do," Chambas said.
It was unclear whether Taylor agreed to Wednesday's announcement. Taylor previously has said he would leave and accept an offer of asylum in Nigeria when the first peacekeepers arrive.
Nigeria was expected to provide a total of about 1,500 men — the vanguard of what regional leaders said should be a 5,000-strong foreign force. The first 300 soldiers should arrive Monday with armored vehicles, said Col. Theophilus Tawiah of Ghana, the future force's chief of staff.
Ghana, Senegal and Mali each will send 250 troops thereafter, using U.N. and U.S. planes, Tawiah said.
A 10-member advance scout team, which includes one American, was in Liberia considering such logistics as lodging and fuel for troops.
Rebels are pressing home their three-year campaign to oust Taylor. Aid groups say fighting during three waves of rebel offensives has killed more than 1,000 civilians in the capital, a city of 1 million that is choked with hundreds of thousands of refugees.
With the Atlantic Ocean port and the main water plant cut off by fighting, Monrovia is rife with hunger, thirst and cholera, and is hit nearly round-the-clock by mortars, rockets and gunfire.
In Monrovia, Taylor spokesman Vaanii Passawe called the Accra declaration only "a draft proposal."
However, Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea said Taylor had been in close touch with the West African leaders and he called the announcement not "that far from the truth."
The leader of the rebel movement laying siege to Monrovia scoffed at the idea of Taylor accepting any peace deal.
"Taylor's not going to leave except by force," said Sekou Conneh, chairman of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. "After the peacekeepers have been on the ground for three days — call me back then, and we'll see."
The United States has promised $10 million in logistical support for the West African mission. It is sending three warships with Marines to Liberia for what President Bush says will be limited assistance. Bush has made the deployment of U.S. troops contingent on Taylor leaving and a cease-fire being in place.
U.S. officials introduced a draft measure at the United Nations this week asking for approval of a multinational force, to be followed by a U.N. deployment by Oct. 1.