MONROVIA, Liberia – West African peacekeeping forces said they would send troops to north-central Liberia as early as Saturday, moving into the countryside for the first time to quell unrest that has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee.
Col. Theophilus Tawiah, the force's chief of staff, on Friday urged those displaced by the war to return to refugee camps and their homes in the north, saying troops would be there soon to protect them.
"We are reassuring them that we are deploying by the weekend, so they should go back to their camps," Tawiah said. He added there would be "big trouble" if the refugees headed for Monrovia.
The commanding officer for Guinea-Bissau (search), which has 500 troops in the peace force, traveled to the north-central town of Kakata on Friday to prepare for deployment there, Tawiah said.
The move north would mark the month-old peace mission's first sizable deployment into the interior.
The arrival of the peace force on Aug. 4, followed by a peace accord Aug. 18, largely has brought calm to Liberia's capital. It has helped end 2 months of rebel sieges of Monrovia, lifted after warlord-president Charles Taylor (search) resigned and flew into exile in Nigeria on Aug. 11.
The Guinea-Bissau troops are to be based in Kakata, 35 miles north of Monrovia.
North-central Liberia remains the most volatile area following the peace deal. The town of Gbarnga was Taylor's stronghold during Liberia's 1989-96 civil war; as president, he put his most-feared forces in the nearby town of Gbatala.
Rebels are believed to hold at least Gbatala, and Gbarnga has been the scene of repeated attacks and counterattacks.
On Tuesday, tens of thousands of refugees fled camps to the north of Kakata, saying they had heard gunfire, mortars and rumors of fighting nearby.
A West African team dispatched to the area Thursday to investigate reports of fighting said it found only abandoned homes and shops.
The flight was only the latest from the area in weeks of lingering unrest in the countryside.
It has been impossible to determine the severity of continuing clashes in the interior. Many believe the combatants are concentrating on securing territory or property before the nationwide deployment of the peacekeepers.
Taylor's defense minister, Daniel Chea (search), admitted last month that his men had faked reports of attack on one north-central town to scare inhabitants and make it easier for fighters to engage in looting.
The peacekeeping force has reached 3,050 and is expected to reach nearly 3,500 African troops by Wednesday.