Mobs brandishing machetes, sticks and Kalashnikov rifles rampaged through Liberia's war-shattered capital Friday, prompting the country's leader to order an immediate daylight curfew to stem the rare Muslim-Christian violence. A U.N. armored vehicle trying to disperse a crowd inadvertently crushed three people to death, a policeman said.

At least three churches and two mosques in the eastern suburb of Paynesville were set ablaze after midnight, and several wounded people lay in the streets, an Associated Press photographer on the scene said. One man, stabbed in the head with a knife, could be seen on a main road in a pool of blood, apparently unconscious.

Plumes of black smoke rose from Paynesville, where U.N. peacekeepers in armored personal carriers fired in the air to try to maintain order. U.N. choppers rumbled overhead.

It was not clear what sparked the violence.

"The curfew starts now," interim head of state Gyude Bryant said in a statement broadcast over the private radio station DC101 FM. "The United Nations (searchmission has been instructed to use every force to put the situation under control."

"I am appealing to all of you to remain calm," he said. "We are determined to ensure that peace is restored."

Residents said troubles began early Thursday in Paynesville and spread west to an Atlantic Ocean port.

Sporadic gunshots echoed throughout the morning in Paynesville, as mobs hurled rocks and stones at each other.

One U.N. armored vehicle that was trying to disperse a crowd inadvertently crushed three people to death who had been knocked down as they tried to flee, a policeman in the area said on condition of anonymity.

The three bodies lay near a market area in Paynesville. Crowds dispersed briefly, but congregated again later down the road after the U.N. vehicles drove off.

Some residents said five people had been killed in the violence. The claims could not be independently verified, however, and government officials could not be reached for comment.

Violence had also reportedly spread to Kakata, 35 miles north of the capital, where two mosques were destroyed, a local journalist who visited the site said on condition of anonymity.

He said mobs attempted to destroy a third mosque but were stopped by peacekeeping troops deployed in the town.

The U.N. police commander in Liberia, Mark Kroeker, said several houses had been destroyed in the violence and "numerous" people were injured.

Many people had to be rescued from mobs during the night, he said on a U.N. radio station.

He did not mention the burning of any churches or mosques. Religious leaders took to the airwaves to appeal for calm.

About 40 percent of Liberia's 3.3 million people are Christians. About 20 percent are Muslim, and the rest follow indigenous beliefs.

Liberia is struggling to recover from an era of fighting that began in 1989 and claimed at least 150,000 lives.

A three-year rebel war ended last year. With insurgents shelling the capital, President Charles Taylor agreed to go into exile in Nigeria, clearing the way for a transitional government that gave top rebel officials ministerial posts.

A 15,000-strong U.N. peace force is now stationed in the West African nation to provide security. The new government is to hold elections in October 2005.