MONROVIA, Liberia – Buckets in hand, thousands of rain-soaked Liberian war refugees (search) gathered Monday on the muddy soccer field of a sports stadium, clamoring for emergency food rations.
Driven from their homes by fighting between army and rebel forces, entire families have moved into the stadium, building shelters of bamboo and leaves under bleachers, laying clothes to dry on the running track and camping out in locker rooms and offices.
Pressure is mounting on the United States to lead a peacekeeping mission to quell the violence in the West African nation founded by freed American slaves.
After their meeting, Bush said he wanted to dispatch a contingent of Americans "limited in size and limited in tenure," but gave no hint of whether they would be military advisers, humanitarian experts or soldiers. He said any mission would depend on Liberian President Charles Taylor (search) stepping down and leaving the country.
"It may require troops. We don't know how many yet," said Bush, adding that he was awaiting reports from U.S. military experts sent to Liberia to assess the situation. "It's hard for me to make a determination until I see all the facts."
Aides to Bush said they didn't expect a decision this week.
Some 33,000 people are camped out at the Samuel Doe Stadium, named for the former Liberian president killed in 1990 by forces loyal to Taylor.
In more peaceful days, the same number of people filled the stadium for track-and-field competitions and soccer games.
Now, every crevice free of rain is packed with refugees.
Taylor, indicted for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, has promised to leave Liberia once an international peacekeeping force arrives. Rebel leaders also seek the intervention of peacekeepers, but argue that any forces arriving before Taylor's departure would fortify the president's embattled regime.
In the stadium's underground levels, a rabbit warren of bare concrete rooms teemed with people Monday. Orange embers from charcoal fires and slits of sunlight from the occasional window provided the only light.
Pebbles lined the floors, marking off the living spaces claimed by individual families.
Red Cross trucks were parked on the stadium's track, where workers distributed white plastic buckets full of food and household supplies -- cornmeal, vegetable oil, lentils, pots, blankets, sleeping mats and clothes.
The refugees waited in long lines, carrying away heaving sacks on their heads and retreating into the shadows of the stadium to cook meals on open fires.
Thick clouds of wood smoke hung in the air. Children, sent outside to collect firewood, returned carrying it on their heads.
The food distribution will continue for the next four days, relief officials said.
"A lot of people are continuing to come," said Andre Mermillod, economic and security coordinator for the Red Cross. "The situation is a bit difficult because the more they are here, the less access they have to food."
Many refugees have been living in the stadium for the past month, when fighting intensified. Others have sought refuge in schools and churches.
"This is our means of survival and I hope others will come in to help," said Ottis Mulbah, 33, carrying a sack of cornmeal on his head. Tucked under one arm was a rolled-up sleeping mat, under the other were cooking utensils.
The rebels' three-year campaign to drive out Taylor is nearing a full-scale battle for the capital, crowded with 1 million residents and hundreds of thousands of refugees. Pressure for an international peace force -- and U.S. support -- grew during two rebel offensives of Monrovia last month.
Liberian rebel and government leaders pleaded again Monday for American military intervention.
"The mere presence of American soldiers with arms in sufficient," said Kabineh Ja'Neh, a high-ranking official from the main rebel group, said from nearby Ghana where he was attending peace talks. "It would be a monumental psychological comfort and would signal an end to the war."
The appeals came as the government accused rebel forces of cease-fire violations, saying they had instigated battles, most recently in northern Liberia. Rebel leaders said they knew of no serious fighting.
In neighboring Sierra Leone, 100 U.S. troops arrived Monday in the capital, Freetown, to "provide personnel recovery and emergency evacuation capability" for the U.S. military experts in Liberia
The experts arrived in Liberia last week and have been visiting refugee camps, ports and landing strips to assess the possibility of sending troops and aid.
Taylor launched Liberia into war in 1989, leading a small force of armed men to overthrow Doe.
The 14 years of near-perpetual conflict that followed has killed hundreds of thousands. Aid groups say virtually the whole population has been displaced by fighting at one time or another.
In the stadium, the rain and the misery appeared relentless.
"I want to go back home. We are living here on cold bare floors. It is just today that we are getting mats," 42-year-old Varney Coleman said.