Liberian rebels declared an immediate cease-fire on Friday to halt a lightning offensive into the coastal capital Monrovia that has left hundreds dead and battered hopes of a peace deal, Reuters reports.
This week’s fighting sent thousands scurrying in terror and turned up the heat on Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was told by President Bush on Thursday to step down and end a war that has spread turmoil through West Africa.
Rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) said in a statement their cease-fire would let through aid to civilians “and to subsequently avoid a grotesque humanitarian catastrophe in Monrovia and its adjacent parts,” Reuters reports.
Rebels pushed back into Monrovia’s bloodied streets overnight after being driven to the city limits on Wednesday.
Residents said there was heavy shelling around the port during the night, Reuters reports. The clatter of small arms fire replaced the thud of shells in the early morning, but then even that appeared to die down.
It was not immediately clear whether that was due to the cease-fire. Both sides agreed a truce last week to allow negotiations in Ghana but it crumbled as the rebels launched their attack.
The rebels have been under enormous foreign pressure to stop fighting or risk losing all credibility in their war against Taylor, who is under U.N. sanctions and wanted by an international court for war crimes in Sierra Leone.
West African mediators at the stalled talks in Ghana said rebels would be told that if the cease-fire did not hold all negotiations would be suspended and delegations sent home, Reuters reports.
One of the rebel delegates in Ghana reportedly said they had declared the truce after winning control of Liberia’s main port and would insist on keeping hold of that.
Fears of a bloodbath in Monrovia have drawn fresh calls for U.S. intervention in a country founded over 150 years ago by freed American slaves, but officials in Washington said there was no plan to send a peacekeeping force.
Bush told Taylor on Thursday that he should simply step down to end the bloodshed. The rebels demand the same thing.
But the Liberian government reportedly warned of potential anarchy if anyone tried to put in place a “quick solution” to violence that has lasted on and off for nearly 14 years.
Hundreds of thousands of people have poured into Monrovia’s center since rebels launched their first attack at the beginning of the month. Aid agencies are struggling to cope with war wounds, disease and a lack of clean water and electricity.
Health Minister Peter Coleman reportedly said about 300 people had been killed and 1,000 wounded in the past few days. Up to 400 were believed killed in fighting earlier this month in a city that bears the scars of bloody battles in the 1990s.
Taylor has vowed to fight to the end, and says he wants to complete a mandate that expires in January. Accused of spreading conflict to Liberia’s neighbors, he has been indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone by an international court.
Liberia has been under U.N. sanctions for over two years—including bans on diamond exports and travel by top officials—for helping brutal rebels in Sierra Leone. An arms embargo has been in place for even longer.