MONROVIA, Liberia – Charles Taylor (search)'s forces battled Tuesday to retake key cities captured by rebels in fighting that had the Liberian warlord-turned-president threatening to hang onto power despite his pledge to resign.
Aid workers tending to emaciated babies in Monrovia (search) said the new combat cut the starving capital's last aid lifeline. Desperate refugees, crossing paths as they fled one embattled Liberian city for another, said there was no place to turn.
"All over, fighting now," said Hadija Kabah, 54, caring for more than a dozen children and grandchildren at a makeshift camp outside Monrovia. "There's no place safe to go in Liberia."
"People are fighting this side. People are fighting that side," said businessman Norman Anderson, arriving at the camp from Buchanan (search), Liberia's second-largest city, where Taylor's forces launched a counterattack Tuesday. He pointed first up, then down, the road.
Referring to repeatedly stalled international promises of a peace force, Anderson said bitterly: "You all are making fun of us. We need the international body now, not tomorrow. We are dying now."
Arguments over funding are believed to be delaying deployment of a peace mission, pledged by West African nations with assurances of U.S. and other international assistance.
Nigeria, West Africa's military power, has offered two battalions but says it needs help with what it expects to be a multimillion-dollar daily tab. Asked after meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair in London when peacekeeping troops might go in, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo told reporters, "a few days."
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, eager to see peacekeepers in place, said in New York that a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone can transport one Nigerian battalion and, with Security Council approval, could provide support for two battalions for a limited period.
Liberia's main rebel group is pressing two months of sieges of Liberia's capital, a city of 1 million overflowing with hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Rebels hold Monrovia's port, cutting off food and other vital aid for the capital and surrounding refugee camps.
Insurgents have fought a three-year war to capture Monrovia and topple Taylor, a Boston-educated business student and Libyan-trained guerrilla fighter who launched Liberia into 14 years of near-perpetual conflict in 1989.
On Monday, Liberia's second, smaller rebel group abandoned its own cease-fire pledge and went on the offensive, capturing the southeastern port of Buchanan.
Government forces waged a counterattack Tuesday, battling in the streets of the city. As evening arrived, neither side was in control.
Taylor's military officers also reported themselves in heavy fighting for the former Taylor stronghold of Gbarnga, 110 miles north of Monrovia, which was taken by rebels late Sunday.
In Monrovia, aid workers doled out diminishing stores of high-protein milk to the worst-off infants -- children with the reddish hair and swollen limbs of advanced malnutrition -- and decried the loss of Buchanan's port.
"Buchanan was the only alternative way to ship some food into Liberia," Frederic Bardou said at a feeding station run by Action Contre la Faim, or Action against Hunger.
"Now -- you can forget about it," said Bardou, surrounded by listless children held by their wasting mothers.
Under pressure from the United States, the rebel group behind the siege of the capital called a new cease-fire late Tuesday. It was the latest in weeks of truce declarations -- repeatedly flouted by fighters on both sides.
In the pledge, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy rebels pledged to quit fighting immediately and turn over Monrovia's port to peacekeepers as soon as they arrived.
Tuesday's cease-fire declaration showed no more promise of sticking than the others, however.
When word passed over the radio, Monrovia's war-weary residents started cheering. Minutes later, three loud explosions sent thousands diving for cover.
Within hours, a shell slammed into an abandoned store crowded with refugees near the Defense Ministry downtown, wounding eight civilians inside. Trails of blood marked where they had been dragged from the building.
Just before the cease-fire, another mortar crashed into a home around Monrovia's heavily contested port, killing two civilians and injuring four, aid workers said.
Holed up in the capital, Taylor's government reacted angrily to the spread of fighting to new fronts outside the city. A spokesman said the attacks had made Taylor rethink ceding power, a pledge Taylor has made -- and repeatedly broken or hedged -- since the rebel siege began in June.
The rebels read Taylor's pledge to step down "as weakness," Taylor spokesman Vaanii Paasawe said. "In fact, it has escalated the war."
"We are of a different opinion now in the government about the validity of the overtures of the president to step down," the Taylor spokesman said. "So if you start hearing differently, you shouldn't be surprised."
In Washington, the Bush administration insisted Taylor must get out.
"Certainly, we have made clear that he needs to leave," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "The president's made clear that he needs to leave, and that departure needs to be coincident with the arrival of peacekeepers."
Bush's assistant secretary of state for Africa, Walter Kansteiner, was expected Wednesday in the region for talks on Liberia's crisis.
Officials in Guinea said the U.S. envoy's first stop was that country, which is accused of funding Liberia's rebels in retaliation for cross-border raids by Liberia.
Meanwhile, West African leaders called the latest in weeks of talks on Liberia and the long-delayed peace mission.
This round, set for Thursday in Accra, Ghana, was to be for top leaders, authorities said.