COTTON TREE, Liberia – Thousands of panicked refugees streamed toward Monrovia (search) from the southeast on Saturday, fleeing artillery explosions and gunfire that West African peacekeepers suggested came from clashes between the government's own militias after Liberia's (search) peace deal.
The exodus filled the road leading from Buchanan, a southern rebel-held port city.
Families hurried with bundled sleeping mats and cooking pots on their heads, after taking flight Friday from the town of Compound One (search), in between Buchanan (search) and the capital, Monrovia, and about 100 miles from the capital.
"Heavy artillery. Bang, bang, boom," said Joseph Boyeah, a teacher, among the fleeing crowds. "They started, so we packed our load and left."
Liberia's two rebel movements and government signed a peace accord Monday, made possible by the Aug. 11 resignation and flight into exile of warlord-president Charles Taylor (search).
A nearly 3-week-old West African peace mission has quelled fighting in the capital. But clashes persist in the countryside, with peacekeepers still struggling to build to a 3,250-strong force just beginning to move beyond the interior.
Waving and giving thumbs-up, refugees on Saturday welcomed the sight of West African peacekeepers barreling past them in trucks and armored personnel carriers, bound for the scene of the reported clashes.
Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea told The Associated Press that government forces had come under attack from rebels there.
However, Col. Theophilus Tawiah of Ghana, chief of staff of the West African force, said rebels were holding to their cease-fire position, near Buchanan and far from the sounds of fighting.
A West African reconnaissance mission on Friday found no sign of rebels, Tawiah said.
"It looks like there was some commotion between government militias," Tawiah said.
Pickup trucks full of young government fighters also rushed toward the reported clashes, packed with militia members clutching AK-47s and rocket-launchers, their legs hanging over the side of the trucks.
Fleeing refugees said government forces were demanding money to let each family pass. The numbers of refugees eventually appeared to overwhelm the government troops at bridges on the route.
Motives for any fighting between Taylor's ex-forces are unclear. However, the government side includes many irregular militias, loyal to their own warlords and often vying with others for spoils of war.
Government forces in particular also have repeatedly been accused of attacking towns to scare off residents, allowing government forces to loot homes and businesses freely.