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Annan wants to send peace force to Liberia

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MONROVIA, Liberia — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Saturday called for urgent deployment of an international force for Liberia, warning of a "humanitarian tragedy" in a war-ruined capital where fighting this week killed hundreds of trapped civilians.

West Africa promised a peace force of at least 5,000 for Liberia if warring sides halt fighting, and France suggested Saturday it was open to contributing troops — stepping in where the United States, Liberia's colonial-era founder, so far has declined to tread.

After a four-day battle between government and rebel forces for the Liberian capital, Annan urged the Security Council on Saturday to authorize sending a multinational force to Liberia to enforce a cease-fire that fell apart soon after it was signed June 17.

"There are reports that several hundred innocent civilians have been killed in fighting in and around Monrovia and of wanton destruction of property and widespread looting," Annan said in a letter to the council.

He called for the deployment to Liberia of a force "to prevent a major humanitarian tragedy and to stabilize the situation in that country."

Liberia's capital counted its dead from this week's siege, the rebels' fiercest assault yet on Monrovia, a city of 1 million crowded with hundreds of thousands of refugees. Rebels pulled out of the city Friday after a four-day siege by artillery and rockets, and after fighting that left an estimated 500 civilians dead.

An international peace force for Liberia was called for in a June 17 cease-fire accord. The cease-fire collapsed last week, after Liberian warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor repudiated his past pledges he would yield power in the interest of peace. The rebels responded with the assault.

Monrovia awoke to calm Saturday for the first time in five days. Thousands of Liberians who had taken shelter around the city's U.S. Embassy, hoping for protection through proximity to the American Marines there, streamed home Saturday — only to find homes looted by government soldiers and others.

"I went home this morning only to see that everything is gone," said one resident, 37-year-old Martin Weah.

Rebels had overrun western neighborhoods of the city as far as the port, heavily contested both for its well-stocked food warehouses and for its strategic value.

Liberian forces challenged rebels' claim that the insurgents had retreated under a unilateral cease-fire, saying rebels had left the city only because of an intense push by Taylor's forces.