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Scattered fighting between government and rebel forces was reported Thursday near Liberia's embattled capital, and American officials arranged special flights to evacuate U.S. nationals.

Four U.S. warships carrying 2,000 Marines were several miles off the coastal capital, ready to get Americans and other foreigners in the event Monrovia becomes a battleground. The ships arrived over the weekend.The special evacuation flights are to begin Saturday and will allow several hundred American citizens to leave, officials in Washington said Wednesday.

The State Department strongly urged the estimated 2,000 Americans who remained in the west African nation of 2.5 million people to leave because of concerns about personal safety.

In the latest fighting, official sources said that rebel soldiers had ambushed an army checkpoint less than 10 miles from the capital. Three soldiers were wounded in the attack, in a neighborhood where at least four Cabinet ministers live, the sources said. If confirmed, the raid came closer to Monrovia than any other reported in the nearly 6-month-old insurgency.

A taxi driver said there was shooting and shelling throughout the night near Robertsfield International Airport, 35 miles from Monrovia.

A European diplomat said President Samuel K. Doe, who was digging in at his oceanside executive mansion, told a U.S. diplomat the rebels would take the capital "over my dead body."

Doe has asked for U.S. military assistance, but Washington has declined. Diplomats in Monrovia said Doe refused a U.S. offer of safe passage.

The Liberian president met Tuesday with Christian and Moslem leaders who offered to mediate between him and the rebels. The meeting was stormy, with Doe angered by church leaders' suggestion he resign, an official source said.