Defence Minister Daniel Chea said there was fighting in the country’s second city of Buchanan and in the central town of Gnarnga. In the capital Monrovia bursts of gunfire could be heard near two fiercely contested bridges near the rebel-held port.

Chea accused the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) of trying to undermine plans to send in West African peacekeepers.

The first battalion of 300 Nigerian troops is due to arrive in war-ravaged Monrovia on Monday.

Chea said government troops were able to fend off rebels from seizing a port and urged the international community to pressure the rebels, saying the port will be needed for peacekeepers.

A senior LURD commander accused Taylor’s troops of shelling their positions and killing civilians. Government officials blamed rebels for the shelling.

Humanitarian crisis looms

Hundreds of people have been
killed in the latest fighting

Some 200,000 refugees have spilled into the streets of Monrovia since the fresh battles launched by LURD to oust Liberian President Charles Taylor, who agreed to step down on 11 August.

Hundreds of thousands more are crammed in the city centre desperate for food and water but often too afraid to go out into the streets.

The World Food Programme (WFP) launched an emergency operation to get food aide into Monrovia on Saturday, flying in half a tonne of high-energy biscuits. The United Nations agency pleaded for both sides to open a humanitarian corridor.

“The humanitarian corridor is a matter of life or death for tens of thousands of people in Monrovia,” said WFP Director for West Africa Manuel Aranda Da Silva.

Another 11.5 tonnes will be flown in over the next few days.

“People are crying out for food and this is the only way we can get aide into the city at the moment,” said Da Silva.