Liberian Rebels, Gov't Battle Over Capital's Port

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Liberia (search)'s rebels and government troops battled Thursday for the capital's port, dueling with guns and grenades as West African leaders promised the first troops of a multinational peacekeeping force within a week.

At a makeshift refugee camp at an American rubber plantation outside the capital, famished, rain-soaked and desperate survivors of the latest siege said the peacekeepers might come too late.

"In one week's time ... our brothers and sisters will die," said Prince Dorboryan, a 25-year-old student.

Behind him, hundreds of children jostled for a daily spoonful of rice given to the youngest refugees at the rubber farm.

"What is happening in Liberia is no joke," Dorboryan emphasized, while countless children, beaten out in the scramble for the mouthful of rice, stood crying. "People are dying."

West African, U.S. and U.N. officials met in neighboring Sierra Leone (search) to plan deployment of the vanguard force of the armed peace force, pledged repeatedly since June as rebels opened the first of three waves of attacks on Monrovia.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of West Africa's leading regional bloc, said a 770-member Nigerian battalion would reach Liberia within a week.

"If before, fine, but not beyond a week," Chambas told The Associated Press. "As you know, we've already lost too much time."

The United States has provided $10 million for the deployment, and was being asked for further logistical support for the Nigerian troops, said Nigerian Lt. Gen. Martin Luther Agwai.

"We want to make sure that everything is worked out properly before we go in, so that once we go in, we will deliver," he said.

Jacques Klein, an American who is the U.N. special representative to Liberia, welcomed news of the Nigerian deployment but expressed doubt they could arrive within the promised seven days. He also appealed for more U.S. money and troops. "In Liberia, now we stand between two options: hope and disaster," he said after briefing the Security Council in New York.

Privately, officials in Nigeria say debate over who will pay for the deployment is delaying the rescue mission. Nigeria (search), West Africa's military giant, says peace missions in the 1990s cost the country $8 billion, and says it cannot afford similar expenses again.

Secretary of State Colin Powell (search), speaking in Washington, said most of the U.S. support for operations in Liberia will be provided by private contractors and not American troops. He added that the administration has an open mind on that issue.

The latest fighting centered on Monrovia's port, which stands between the rebels and President Charles Taylor's downtown stronghold. Warehouses there hold the city's main food supplies and are now in rebel hands, cut off from a refugee-crowded city running desperately short on food and water.

Defense Minister Daniel Chea denied suggestions a major counteroffensive was planned to try to retake the port before peacekeepers arrive.

"No. We're only defending our lives and our people," Chea said by telephone from the port, the sounds of battle raging in the background.

He said government forces had pushed across Stockton Bridge, one of three strategic crossings, for the first time in the six-day rebel offensive. Loyalist troops hope to encircle the rebels, and win back the port.

Of the promised peacekeepers, Chea said, "We've been waiting the arrival ... a long time now. When we see them, we will believe."

Despite the fighting at the port and sporadic explosions and gunfire through the night, rebels insisted they were trying to implement a cease-fire they had promised since Tuesday.

"We don't want to take the country by force. We want to do it by negotiated settlement ... . A military takeover isn't in anyone's interest," said one rebel leader, Charles Benney.

Rebels have waged a three-year campaign to oust Taylor, pushing him since June into Monrovia's densely populated downtown.

Fighting has killed hundreds of civilians since Saturday, leaving bodies in the streets and aid workers burying corpses on Atlantic beaches.

With combat lighter Thursday, residents searched for food -- only to find markets virtually empty.

A five-member Air Force surgical team arrived by helicopter to support the American forces guarding the capital's high-walled U.S. Embassy.

Two of the three ships in the USS Iwo Jima amphibious ready group, which carries a total of 2,300 Marines, had entered the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Marines might be moved off the coast of West Africa as a standby force in case Americans need to be evacuated from the country.

During President Bush's visit to Philadelphia on Thursday, hundreds of protesters lined his motorcade route, many holding signs asking him to send the U.S. military to intervene in Liberia. "Have a heart," said one placard.

Thirty miles outside Monrovia, refugees pushed by the thousands into the Firestone rubber plantation, a sprawling holdover of an American era of investment that once made Liberia the richest nation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Families piled into workers' homes on the plantation and wedged into its school, with two families bedding down in the cramped bathroom.

Fleeing shells and bullets in Monrovia, more families trudged toward the plantation Thursday, pushing wheelbarrows and sleeping in steady downpours by the side of the road.

As in the capital, water and food were in desperately short supply.

"A week is a very, very long time," said Joshua Russell, 23, who was caring for two young brothers and a sister separated from their parents in the chaos.

"I want them to come now," Russell said of the multinational force. "Liberia is going through anarchy, and everyone is sitting back."

West African leaders announced Wednesday they would send two Nigerian battalions, up to 1,300 men in all, to Liberia in days, spearhead of what West Africans said should be a 3,250-member peace force to separate the warring sides.

The United States has yet to say whether it will contribute to the force for Liberia, a nation founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.

The first Nigerian battalion is to come from neighboring Sierra Leone, detaching from a major U.N. peace deployment there. A second battalion of mechanized infantry would come from Nigeria itself.

Rebels are battling to oust Taylor, a warlord-turned-president who launched Liberia into 14 years of near-perpetual conflict in 1989.

The president and his aides have made repeated announcements since June that Taylor would step down in the interests of peace, only to hedge on timing or renege entirely.