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The United States pressed Ivory Coast Friday not to turn away refugees from Liberia's civil war, thousands of whom were reported crammed aboard an unseaworthy vessel off the West African shores.

"Our Embassy in Abidjan . . . has approached the Ivorian government this morning to make the point that there are international rules and they should be respected," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said.The refugees aboard an aging freighter, the Bulk Challenge, were sailing toward Ghana Friday after Ivory Coast forced the vessel back to sea.

The international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said the freighter was still within Ivorian territory and was not likely to reach Ghana, a four-day journey.

Ivorian Interior Minister Emile Bombet blamed the United States for not using one of its naval ships it had sent to the shores of Monrovia to evacuate foreigners.

He defended the decision to force the Nigerian freighter to leave San Pedro port, saying its passengers included more than 2,000 Liberian guerrillas. He said Ivory Coast already was hosting more than 300,000 Liberian war refugees.

But Burns told a news briefing the United States had airlifted more than 2,500 civilians from Monrovia.

"I don't believe the problem is with the United States," he said. "I believe that we're talking about the obligations that some African countries have here to fellow Africans who find themselves, unfortunately as refugees."