The Senegal army in a statement said the military chiefs would discuss the Liberian situation on Tuesday and Wednesday in the capital Dakar.

 

Responding to calls for intervention from the West African region and Washington, the discussions will centre on a preliminary force that will go on a Liberian mission. Already several weeks late, the 1500 troops are expected to be the forerunner of a larger force.

 

US position

   

The United States’ administration has placed the main burden on West African states to send in peacekeepers. "It's time for ECOWAS to act," a US State Department official said, referring to the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

   

Bush, who is facing calls for Washington to make its first African foray since a bloody exit from Somalia 10 years ago, said he was working with the United Nations to get government forces and rebels to return to a ceasefire agreed on 17 June.

   

A Pentagon spokesman said 4,500 US troops on three warships were being moved into the Mediterranean to place them in a better position for possible use in Liberia, some seven to 10 days sailing time away.

 

The US has said it would only intervene if the country's President Charles Taylor left Liberia. So far Taylor, who is accused of war crimes, has refused to go into exile in Nigeria.

 

More than 600 civilians have been killed in Liberia's capital Monrovia in fighting between rebels and government troops during the past few days, Liberia's Defence Minister Daniel Chea said on Tuesday.

 

A humanitarian crisis is
looming large

The violence on the ground is complicating the issue for the Bush administration. Pentagon officials say they are concerned over what could be an open ended commitment when the military is already over extended in Iraq.

 

Meanwhile, US marines were deployed to protect  the US Embassy in Liberia which was bombarded by mortars on Monday as fighting continued to rage in the capital Monrovia.

 

Rebel attack

 

At least 20 mortar bombs smashed into the diplomatic quarter, close to the US embassy compound.

 

It was believed Monday's shells were launched by rebel forces attacking the capital, and not by soldiers loyal to the beleaguered President, Charles Taylor.

 

Two rebel factions hold about two-thirds of the country. The Rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy launched two unsuccessful attacks last month, which left hundreds dead.

 

The fighting increased pressure on Washington to help the country, created by former US slaves.