Rebels hacked 17 civilians to death and cannon fire thundered across the capital Thursday as guerrilla leader Charles Taylor launched a fresh attempt to seize the capital.

Insurgents loyal to Taylor rampaged through the Paynesville suburb in the eastern part of Monrovia overnight, killing 17 people and wounding 12, said officials of the African peacekeeping force that controls the city.The international force cordoned off the area and adjacent neighborhoods where the rebels were believed to be hiding. Fighting also raged around a satellite telecommunications station near Paynesville.

Peacekeeping soldiers closed the port and ordered merchants to go home. Cars were stopped and searched for weapons.

"We might not have a pleasant Christmas if this continues," said Nyonogbe Nyepan, a Monrovian woman who like other residents of the battered city has spent three nights listening to the sounds of gunfire and shelling.

Monrovia has been peaceful compared with the rest of the country since the Nigerian-led peacekeeping force and anti-Taylor factions put down the rebel leader's last attempt to take the capital from October 1992 to January 1993.

There had been fears Taylor would attack Monrovia again soon. The timing is right: The latest peace talks in Ghana collapsed recently and members of the peacekeeping army are frustrated and starting to reduce their force. West African leaders who have tried to guide peace negotiations have made clear they have lost patience with the warring factions.

Taylor began the war with an invasion from neighboring Ivory Coast on Christmas Eve of 1989. He toppled dictator Samuel Doe, but the war since then has degenerated into a seven-faction battle waged along tribal lines.