MONROVIA, Liberia – West African peacekeepers Monday postponed what would have been their first major deployment into Liberia's (search) countryside, saying they wanted to investigate new government claims of new rebel attacks.
State radio reported fighting Sunday at Todee, about 40 miles northeast of Monrovia (search), saying rebels had injured a number of government fighters and captured one. Rebels denied the claim.
About 600 West African peacekeepers had planned to move into the area Saturday to set up a camp at the nearby town of Kakata, on the main road to the rebel-controlled town of Gbatala.
The month-old West African peace mission in Liberia has kept largely to bases in and around Monrovia, sending only small teams on brief missions to the unsecured countryside.
Liberia's government initially objected to the Kakata deployment, but Defense Minister Daniel Chea promised Sunday to pull forces from the region so the 600 Guinea-Bissau troops could deploy there afterward.
Col. Theophilus Tawiah of Ghana, chief of staff of the peace force, said commanders sent a small team to the area at dawn Monday to investigate the reported skirmish.
The fact-finding mission must "come back before we can deploy" the larger force, perhaps on Tuesday, he said.
Rebel official Mohamed Sheriff denied his forces were involved in any fighting.
The accounts couldn't be independently verified. Both rebel and government factions have been accused in recent weeks of staging attacks to scare civilians from their homes and clear the way for looting.
The West African soldiers landed in Monrovia in early August, restoring a degree of order to the city after 2 months of fighting that killed more than 1,000 civilians. The African peace force is expected to reach its full strength of 3,250 soldiers by Wednesday.
On Aug. 18, the government and rebels signed a peace deal arranging a power-sharing government to be installed on Oct. 14, leading to democratic elections in 2005. President Charles Taylor (search) agreed to cede power and went into exile in Nigeria.
Last week, reports of fighting in the countryside sent 50,000 Liberians fleeing southward toward Monrovia from the area of the intended peace-force deployment.
Former President Charles Taylor — an ex-warlord who led a 1989-1996 insurgency before being elected Liberia's leader in 1997 — stepped down Aug. 11 under intense pressure from the world leaders and rebels battling since 1999 to oust him. He is now living in exile in Nigeria.