MONROVIA, Liberia – Liberia's army claimed rebels had overrun two towns in a new push apparently aimed at clearing government forces from the north, and aid workers and civilians reported panicked streams of refugees in flight Tuesday from the alleged advance.
The reported offensive comes despite a week-old peace deal meant to end 14 years of conflict in the country, and would put the rebels within 65 miles of the capital from the north.
Rather than reopening any siege on Monrovia (search), it appeared insurgents might be trying to rout government forces from the north, securing territory, ahead of an African peace force's pending deployment into the interior.
While Monrovia has calmed since West African-led forces deployed in the capital nearly four weeks ago, skirmishes have persisted in the country's center, north and southeast.
In Monrovia, top Gen. Benjamin Yeaten (search) claimed rebels had newly taken the towns of Gbatala and Bong Mines, on a main, but dilapidated, road through the countryside.
"We don't understand why these attacks are still going on but we are left with no options but to be on the offensive" and appeal to peacekeepers, Yeaten said.
Humanitarian workers returning to Monrovia from an early venture into the unsecured north reported large movements of people from the direction of the two towns.
"People have bundles on their heads, but don't know where it's safe to go," said James Kerkula, a 29-year-old peddler, newly returned from north of Monrovia.
He described the now routine sight of refugees laden for flight, with mattresses and other goods bundled on their heads.
"The atmosphere in the entire region is confused -- the rebels are in one town today, and in another the next day," Kerkula said.
Rebel officials referred questions about fighting to their chairman, Sekou Conneh, who could not immediately be reached for comment.
Liberia's interior remains largely a no-go zone for West African peacekeepers and aid groups alike, two weeks after warlord-president Charles Taylor resigned office and fled into exile.
Rebels lifted a bloody siege of the capital upon Taylor's departure. On Aug. 18, all sides signed a peace and power-sharing deal meant to end civil war and rebellion under Taylor.
Since 1989, the conflicts have killed more than 150,000 people, and damaged virtually every city and town in once prosperous Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves.
Despite the peace deal, both sides have reported continuing clashes.
It is impossible to independently confirm the accounts or to determine the extent of any fighting.
Some of the alleged offensives are believed aimed at securing territory before peacekeepers move in, or simply carried out for looting.
The West African peace force, now 1,500-strong, is believed to be waiting for arrival of troops from Ghana before starting to spread deeper into the countryside.
The Ghana troops initially were expected last Thursday. Tuesday, it was not clear when they would arrive, or in what numbers.
In Geneva, the World Health Organization expressed concern at the difficulty of coming to grips with epidemics raging amid the fighting.
The WHO has logged 2,460 cases of cholera in Liberia since June, but believes that to be a "serious underestimate" of the real numbers, spokesman Iain Simpson told reporters.
Cholera soared as hundreds of thousands of refugees crowded into the capital to escape fighting. Combat cut off the city's water treatment plant, leaving Monrovia without clean drinking water.
"There is a very serious problem with cholera in Monrovia but also elsewhere," Simpson said.
Also in Geneva, U.N. officials reported a rescue ship en route to a boat full of refugees from Liberia. The refugee boat has been adrift two days in high seas after engine failure.
U.S. Navy and U.N. attempts to get the engine of the MV Overbeck running again failed, and it is now awaiting the arrival of another ship that is to take it and its 186 passengers to Freetown, Sierra Leone.
"The situation on board the boat is OK," said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "There is enough food, and the Americans offered to provide medical help if need be."
In New York, the U.N. Security Council said Tuesday it will maintain sanctions on Liberia's once lucrative timber trade "for the time being." Council members said once the situation in Liberia stabilized, it would be "better placed to consider the issue."
It is "premature to draw definitive conclusions regarding the timber sanctions and their possible impact," the council said in a statement read by its president, Syria's deputy U.N. ambassador Fayssal Mekdad.