MONROVIA, Liberia – West African peacekeepers were preparing to deploy Saturday into Liberia's volatile countryside to establish their first substantial foothold outside the capital since arriving to bolster security a month ago.
About 500 peace troops were to leave Monrovia (search) at midday for the north-central town of Kakata, said Col. Theophilus Tawiah, the peacekeepers' Ghanian chief of staff. The town is on the road connecting scenes of reported fighting and the capital.
North-central Liberia has been among the most troubled spots in the country since the peace force landed Aug. 4, ahead of an Aug. 18 peace deal that has largely brought calm to the capital.
Thousands fled unconfirmed rumors of fighting in the area this week. Tawiah urged refugees to return to their camps and homes in the north, saying peacekeepers would arrive soon to protect them.
"We are reassuring them that we are deploying by the weekend, so they should go back to their camps — because we realize that if they will all descend on Monrovia, there will be a big trouble," Tawiah said Friday.
The peace force numbers 3,050 soldiers and is expected to reach its full force of 3,500 African troops by Wednesday. Peacekeepers so far have helped end 2 months of rebel sieges of the capital, lifted after warlord-president Charles Taylor (search) resigned and flew into exile in Nigeria on Aug. 11.
At a press conference in Monrovia on Friday, Jacques Klein, the U.N. special envoy to Liberia, urged the United States not to pull its last troops out of the impoverished country.
President Bush has said 30 Marines who are acting as liaisons with the West African peace force would leave by Oct. 1. Another some 70 Marines are guarding the U.S. Embassy and a 150-member rapid-reaction force is poised on warships off Liberia.
Meanwhile, top rebel official Sekou Fofana held talks with his longtime foe, Defense Minister Daniel Chea in a meeting arranged by peacekeepers. Fofana described the meeting as "cordial."
"We're all Liberians and need to know that the war is over," he said.
Both rebels and government forces have been accused of pillaging villages in Liberia's countryside despite the peace deal.
On Thursday, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (search) met with former Liberian President Charles Taylor for the first time since the former warlord arrived in the country, Nigerian presidential spokeswoman Remi Oyo said Friday.
Oyo declined to give details about the meeting at Obasanjo's farm at Ota, 30 miles north of the commercial capital, Lagos. A Nigerian government official said on condition of anonymity that Obasanjo expressed concerns about the activities of pro-Taylor militias in Liberia that Nigerian-led peacekeepers want reined in.
Klein, the U.N. envoy, said he was checking into "rumors and allegations" that Taylor left for Nigeria with $3 million meant for disarmament in Liberia. The money allegedly was given to him by an unnamed Asian nation.
"That's something we'll have to check into," Klein said in an interview. "There's nothing left in the treasury of Liberia, and that's going to be a major problem as we try to rebuild the country."
Liberian government officials could not be reached for comment.
Taylor, a one-time rebel who won the presidency in 1997, made his stronghold during Liberia's 1989-96 civil war at the north-central town of Gbarnga (search). As president, he put his most-feared forces in the nearby town of Gbatala (search).
Rebels are believed to hold at least Gbatala, and Gbarnga has been the scene of repeated attacks and counterattacks.