MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberians raised their voices in prayer to a backdrop of crackling weapons fire and mortars, appealing for peace Sunday as rebels again pushed into the besieged capital of this West African nation.
President Charles Taylor's ragtag soldiers rushed to the decaying city's west side while thousands of trapped civilians took flight again.
"God, bring lasting peace. Bring us genuine, sincere, and authentic peace," Archbishop Michael Francis prayed in a Roman Catholic parish church pelted by rain.
Soldiers — in green uniforms and jeans and T-shirts, at times with empty beer bottles spilling out of their pickups — said late Sunday they have beaten back the latest rebel advance, driving insurgents deeper back into the swamps lying behind the St. Paul's River bridge marking the city's western entrance.
U.S. Marines armed with M-16s and wearing bulletproof vests without shirts in the steamy rainy-season heat staked out sandbag bunkers on top of the U.S. Embassy, readying for an expected helicopter evacuation of Westerners. Expatriates said they were told the evacuation would come Monday, but U.S. officials refused to comment on timing.
The U.S. Embassy already announced an evacuation of nonessential personnel, and U.N. agencies also may leave.
Liberia's rebels are waging a rapidly intensifying three-year battle to drive out Taylor, a warlord who won presidential elections in 1997 at the end of the country's seven-year civil war.
Taylor launched that war with a failed coup attempt and is accused of aiding insurgent movements in most of the conflicts roiling west Africa.
The rebels' drive against Taylor gained momentum Wednesday, when a U.N-Sierra Leone court charged him with war crimes for allegedly aiding Sierra Leone rebels in their vicious 10-year terror campaign.
By Sunday, Taylor controlled little of the country outside of the capital.
The rebels' leader told The Associated Press on Sunday that insurgents will fight their way into the capital unless Taylor yields.
"We want the international community to ask him to step down so as to avoid bloodshed," LURD chairman Sehon Damate Conneh Jr. said in Rome, where he was meeting with the Catholic San' Egidio Community, which mediates world conflicts.
"If Taylor doesn't step down, we would go in."
Taylor vowed in an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday to keep the city. He directed Sunday's fighting from a white-walled compound in the city's main port on the Atlantic Ocean.
The port is on the city's west side and apparently is the rebels' chief objective.
Government defense officials said Sunday that rebels made their latest raid across the St. Paul's River in dugout canoes, bypassing the bridge.
Red Cross workers sped out of the agency's warehouse compound at the port in white pickups as the fighting neared.
Before the drive on Monrovia, Liberia's civil war already had uprooted 1 million people within the country and sent 300,000 fleeing to neighboring countries.
Fighting since Thursday, when the push on the city started, has sent 160,000 residents of refugee camps outside the city running into the capital.
Now, hundreds of thousands of city residents have fled their homes to escape fighting on the outskirts and rebel raids into the city Friday and Sunday.
Under U.S. pressure, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy announced a cease-fire Saturday. The rebels reportedly gave Taylor a three-day ultimatum to leave office.
During Saturday's fighting, Swiss honorary consul Juerg Landolt, his assistant and two other Europeans went missing, the Swiss Foreign Ministry said Sunday.
Fighting briefly stilled between late Saturday and early Sunday.
Refugees who fled the city's west started plodding home — only to pause again at the sound of Sunday's new fighting, wheel around and rush away.
Churchgoers in their Sunday best shared potholed sidewalks with families trudging past with mattresses and bundles on their heads, and crying children on their backs.
"Turn back, turn back," one soldier, with an AK-47 over his shoulder, yelled at women plodding down a street on the front line.
"I want to go home," the woman in front said, and pushed forward into the gunfire.
At one of Monrovia's many storefront churches, members of the Christopolis Christian Center raised their hands to the rusted tin roof in prayer.
"The bombshells, the bombs are the only sound you hear," the Rev. Joseph Nufee cried as fighting flared. "Where ever you go, there is no way out."
Overnight, nearly 10,000 of Monrovia's displaced sought refuge in the capital's sports stadium.
Refugees filled the concrete bunkers under the stands, laying out rocks to mark out space for each family. Dark, unlit stadium tunnels echoed with the whisking of hundreds of unseen refugees' flip-flops.
"We're dying of hunger," refugees cried out, as district mayor Isaac Levi Flomo walked among them.
Flomo said authorities had no food to give them, only shelter from rains.
"No food, no food," men cried out as Flomo passed.
"No peace, no peace," women said.