Liberian Rebels, Government Battle Over Key Bridge

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Liberian rebels on Wednesday shattered a day-old pledge to cease fire, lobbing mortars at neighborhoods crowded with refugees and briefly capturing a key bridge in the war-ruined capital -- a city running desperately short of food and water.

Boosting security around the U.S. Embassy, American military helicopters swept into embattled Monrovia carrying 20 Marine reinforcements, completing deployment of a 41-member team.

As a fog bank engulfed the rain-soaked city, the helicopters swept out again with 18 American and European evacuees -- aid workers, journalists and members of a U.S. assessment team sent to evaluate conditions for any possible U.S. deployment.

With no letup in fighting, West African leaders pledged Wednesday to send two Nigerian battalions to Liberia (search) within days-- the vanguard of what they say should be a 3,250-strong international force to bring peace to the devastated nation.

The first Nigerian battalion, 770-strong, would arrive in a week, officials said.

In Accra, Ghana, a top aide to President Charles Taylor (search) again pledged the Liberian leader would leave the day the Nigerian troops arrive. "When the interposition force arrives, Mr. Taylor will leave," Lewis Brown said.

Taylor has made repeated pledges to cede power since rebels opened attacks two months ago on Monrovia, Taylor's last stronghold.

Rebels, pressing home a three-year war to oust Taylor, derided his most recent promises to surrender control.

"Taylor is just bluffing," rebel spokesman Kabineh Ja'neh said in Ghana, site of off-and-on peace talks for Liberia. "You know how many times he has said this kind of thing? We'll make sure he leaves."

The United States has yet to say whether it will take part in any military intervention in Liberia, as West African and U.N. leaders and many Liberians have urged.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Terrence Dudley, spokesman for the U.S. assessment team, declined to discuss its conclusions, saying only it was "satisfied" with the information gathered so far. Four team members are remaining in Liberia to provide additional information as needed.

Major British aid agencies appealed for Europe and the United States to send peacekeepers to stop the bloodshed.

The agencies Save the Children, Action Aid, Christian Aid and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development called for a U.N. resolution on peacekeeping.

Africa's first republic, Liberia was founded by freed American slaves with U.S. government support in the 19th century.

Since June, rebels have launched three waves of attacks on Monrovia. Fighting has killed hundreds of trapped civilians in the capital.

Cut off from the city's cemeteries by the battles, aid workers, their faces masked, buried victims of fighting on Monrovia's beaches Wednesday, shoveling corpses into the sand under driving rain next to the stormy, steel-gray Atlantic.

More dead lay uncollected in the streets -- making the death toll since the latest surge in fighting impossible to calculate.

U.S. Ambassador John Blaney condemned the attacks as "senseless violence" and expressed "deepest sympathies regarding the tragic loss of life" in a joint statement with U.S. defense officials at the embassy.

Explosions boomed and gunfire rattled in the city Wednesday, despite a rebel pledge Tuesday to cease fire. More than 100 injured arrived at the city's main hospital.

By midday, rebels based in the city's northwestern port area had crossed Stockton Bridge into the New Georgia suburb, Lt. Gen. Roland Duo said. Government forces -- many of them teenagers armed with AK-47s and grenade launchers -- beat back the rebel advance by dusk.

Women clutched the hands of children as thousands fled east, away from the fighting, in heavy rain.

"We had high hope that America was still going to save lives when the war started. But this dream is now in ruins," said Lydia Fallah, who ran from her home with just the clothes on her back.

Fighting has pushed hundreds of thousands of civilians into Monrovia -- still in ruins from the country's last 1989-96 civil war.

Battles since Saturday have cut the overwhelmed city off from food and water supplies, with rebels taking control of the port with its aid and commercial warehouses.

Near the U.S. Embassy, where at least 10,000 have crowded into a diplomatic residential compound in hope of safety, vendors on Wednesday were selling flour and corn meal from stolen World Food Program bags, a cup at a time.

Merchants said fighters had looted the bags from U.N. warehouses and then sold them to civilians.

Dozens of disabled people in wheelchairs gathered in front of the embassy to plead for help, chanting, "We want food. We want food."

Across the city, residents used a short-lived lull in fighting Wednesday morning to run out in search for food.

"My smallest one keeps saying, 'Pappy, I want to eat,' but I have nothing at all to give him," said Emmanuel Jackson, 55, scouting food for his family of seven children, now living under an apartment building's concrete stairs.

Aid workers have been logging 350 new cholera cases a week, and expect the epidemic to surge as civilians draw water from an inadequate number of wells, many contaminated.

At a clinic run by the British aid group Merlin, frail, emaciated children hooked up to IV-drips moaned on beds improvised out of wood and plastic sheeting as mortars thudded in the distance.

In Switzerland, authorities announced Wednesday they had frozen $1.47 million in assets linked to Taylor.

The step was taken at the request of a U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone, which has indicted Taylor as a war-crimes suspect in that country's vicious 10-year civil war.

Taylor allegedly trafficked in guns and diamonds with the rebels, investing proceeds from diamond sales in a number of countries, including Switzerland.

In Dakar (search), Senegal, West African leaders meeting on Liberia's crisis pledged deployment of the first battalions of a long-promised multinational force.

One battalion would peel off from a U.N. peace force already deployed in Sierra Leone, U.N. spokesman Patrick Coker said in that country, which borders Liberia.

The other battalion would come from Nigeria -- for a total initial deployment that West African leaders put at 1,300.

West African foreign ministers also called for an additional stabilization force of 3,250 men, much larger than previously discussed.