But by Wednesday night, two days after arriving at the main airport outside Monrovia, a west African force known as ECOMIL had yet to deploy in the city. Monrovia has been under rebel siege for two months and become the scene of a humanitarian catastrophe.

The United States, which has 2,500 Marines on ships off the coast, moved closer to sending soldiers ashore when the first members of a liaison team of up to 20 troops were flown in by helicopter to the US embassy in Monrovia.

Several of them later went to the airport to liaise with the west African peacekeeping force there.

The team will set up communications between the ships and peacekeepers on the ground to prepare for a possible US deployment, if President George W. Bush gives his final approval, officials said in Washington.
 
Bush is under intense pressure to intervene in Liberia, both
abroad and at home.

Nigerian troops fly in

"We will begin patrolling as soon as possible. It could be today, it could be tomorrow,” said ECOMIL commander General Festus Okonkwo.

Force spokesman Captain Onyema Kanu said some 450 Nigerian troops - a mixture of mechanised infantry and special forces - had arrived at the airport, along with five armoured personnel carriers.

Helicopters carrying men and equipment continued to arrive through the day, with a second battalion of Nigerian troops due to start deploying from Saturday.

But as the international peacekeeping mission inched closer towards readiness on Wednesday, doubts continued over the fate of Liberia's President Charles Taylor, who has vowed to step down from power next week.

The international community - as well as the rebels - see Taylor's departure as a prerequisite to finding a durable end to the civil war, the second to erupt in Liberia in little more than a decade.

The head of west African regional grouping ECOWAS, which has sent the peacekeepers to Monrovia, said that Taylor would on Thursday address Liberia's parliament to confirm that he was stepping down.

Taylor playing for time

Liberia’s president will "inform them of his intention to resign," before handing over to his successor on Monday and departing for Nigeria, Mohammed Ibn Chambas said in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

But the Liberian president appears to be playing for time as he seeks to duck prosecution for war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

His government has asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to intervene over an indictment for his role in atrocities committed during Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war, an ICJ statement said on Wednesday.

But the Nigerian government, which has offered Taylor asylum, said on Wednesday it would not negotiate over the international arrest warrant he faces for his alleged war crimes.

Five more civilians were killed overnight by sniper fire in the frontline West Point district of the city, an aid worker told AFP, and the situation in the city remains tense despite a shaky ceasefires.