CAREYSBURG, Liberia – West African peacekeepers (search) took a crucial step toward securing Liberia's peace Tuesday, making their first major move into the volatile countryside and brokering a cease-fire to end the latest battle between rebels and government troops.
Fighting erupted early Tuesday when rebels attacked and overran Kakata, 40 miles northeast of Monrovia (search), said Col. Theophilus Tawiah of Ghana, the peace force's chief of staff.
About 650 soldiers from Guinea-Bissau arrived just outside Kakata as the two sides traded fire. The contingent's Nigerian operations chief and a senior commander from Guinea-Bissau then met with leaders in the clash, negotiating an end to the battle.
"Our chief of operations intervened. The fighting has ceased and the people are deployed," Tawiah told The Associated Press, referring to peacekeepers.
After the fighting eased, the peacekeepers moved into the town in armored cars and trucks.
Peacekeepers rounded up the rebels, who had briefly taken control of Kakata, loaded them onto trucks and transported them to their base at Tubmanburg -- passing over miles of government-held roads without any reported incident.
At least three rebel soldiers were wounded in the skirmish, along with two civilians including a woman in her 30s. The woman, whose house had been hit by a mortar round, was wounded in one foot.
Two trucks loaded with peacekeepers -- an advance team preparing for the arrival of the larger force -- had slept in Kakata overnight. The rest of the force arrived later Tuesday. None of the peacekeepers fired weapons during the fighting, Tawiah said.
Unrest and large-scale refugee flows have plagued Liberia's countryside despite an Aug. 18 peace deal between the government and rebels.
The deployment to Kakata, delayed for several days, marked the peace force's first major push outside the capital since they arrived more than a month ago.
"We don't see any sign of peace. People signed the peace document, but they're not abiding by it," said Johnson Williams, a 41-year-old carpenter listening for news on the radio about 10 miles south of Kakata.
At least 200 civilians fled Kakata on Tuesday, said Coralie Lechelle, of the French aid group Medecins sans Frontieres (search).
Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea insisted the peace force "must be firm against any cease-fire violations."
Speaking at Careysburg, a crossroads 20 miles south of the fighting, Chea said "the attack today is a test-case for their resolve."
Both sides in Liberia have been accused of staging attacks or spreading rumors of fighting to scare residents from towns so fighters could loot and steal food without interference.
West African soldiers landed in Monrovia in early August, bringing calm to the capital after 2 months of fighting that killed over 1,000 civilians.
Until now, peacekeepers have largely kept to bases in and around Monrovia, sending only small teams on brief missions to the countryside.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he did not think U.S. Marines would return to Monrovia despite renewed fighting between government forces and rebels.
"I don't think that's really an issue at this point," he said. "The West African (peacekeeping) troops have been restoring security in Monrovia. Nongovernmental organizations and U.N. agencies are operating there again."
Boucher said shipments of food and fuel are coming back into Liberia, not just to Monrovia but to other areas such as Buchanan, which is part of a process of extending the operations of humanitarian groups.
The West African peace force is expected to reach its intended full strength of just over 3,500 soldiers Wednesday with the arrival of 250 troops from Benin.
The United Nations is supposed to take over the peace mission in the coming months.
Former President Charles Taylor stepped down Aug. 11 under intense pressure from the world leaders and rebels battling since 1999 to oust him. He is now living in exile in Nigeria.
A power-sharing government to be installed Oct. 14, leading to elections in 2005.