MONROVIA, Liberia -- Liberia's rebels and government troops battled Thursday for the capital's port, dueling with guns and grenades as West African leaders promised the first troops of a multinational peacekeeping force within a week.
At a makeshift refugee camp at an American rubber plantation outside the capital, famished, rain-soaked and desperate survivors of the latest siege said the peacekeepers could come too late.
"In one week's time ... our brothers and sisters will die," said Prince Dorboryan, a 25-year-old student.
Behind him, hundreds of children jostled for the daily spoonful of rice being given the youngest refugees at the rubber farm.
"What is happening in Liberia is no joke," Dorboryan emphasized, while countless children, beaten out in the scramble for the mouthful of rice, stood crying. "People are dying."
West African, U.S. and U.N. officials met in neighboring Sierra Leone to plan deployment of the vanguard force of the armed peace force, pledged repeatedly since June as rebels opened the first of three waves of attacks on Monrovia.
Mohamed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of West Africa's leading regional bloc, said a 770-member Nigerian battalion would reach Liberia within a week.
"If before, fine, but not beyond a week," Chambas told The Associated Press. "As you know, we've already lost too much time."
The price of peacekeeping
The United States has provided $10 million for the deployment, and was being asked for further logistical support for the Nigerian troops, said Nigerian Lt. Gen. Martin Luther Agwai.
"We want to make sure that everything is worked out properly before we go in, so that once we go in, we will deliver," he said.
Privately, officials in Nigeria say debate over who will pay for the deployment is delaying the rescue mission. Nigeria, West Africa's military giant, says peace missions in the 1990s cost the country $8 billion, and says it cannot afford similar expenses again.
Fighting Thursday centered on Monrovia's port, which stands between the rebels and President Charles Taylor's downtown stronghold. Warehouses there hold the city's main food supplies and are now in rebel hands, cut off from a refugee-crowded city running desperately short on food and water.
Despite the fighting at the port and sporadic explosions and gunfire through the night, rebels insisted they were trying to implement a cease-fire they had promised since Tuesday.
"We don't want to take the country by force. We want to do it by negotiated settlement ... . A military takeover isn't in anyone's interest," said one rebel leader, Charles Benney.
Rebels have waged a three-year campaign to oust Taylor, pushing him since June into Monrovia's densely populated downtown.
Fighting has killed hundreds of civilians since Saturday, leaving bodies in the streets and aid workers burying corpses on Atlantic beaches.
With combat lighter Thursday, residents searched for food -- only to find markets virtually empty.
Thirty miles outside Monrovia, refugees pushed by the thousands into the Firestone rubber plantation, a sprawling holdover of an American era of investment that once made Liberia the richest nation in sub-Saharan Africa.
Families piled into plantation workers' homes and wedged into a plantation school, including two families bedding down in the cramped school toilet.
Fleeing shells and bullets in Monrovia, more families trudged toward the plantation Thursday, pushing wheelbarrows and sleeping in steady downpours by the side of the road.
As in the capital, water and food were in desperately short supply. A plantation hospital administrator was distributing less than a spoonful of rice a day to children under 5.
"A week is a very, very long time," said Joshua Russell, 23, who was caring for two young brothers and a sister separated from their parents in the chaos.
"I want them to come now," Russell said of the multinational force. "Liberia is going through anarchy, and everyone is sitting back."
West African leaders announced Wednesday they would send two Nigerian battalions, up to 1,300 men in all, to Liberia in days, spearhead of what West Africans said should be a 3,250-member peace force to separate the warring sides.
The United States has yet to say whether it will contribute to the force for Liberia, a nation founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.
The first Nigerian battalion is to come from neighboring Sierra Leone, detaching from a major U.N. peace deployment there. A second battalion of mechanized infantry would come from Nigeria itself.
West African states have talked for weeks of sending a peace force to Liberia.
Rebels are battling to oust Taylor, a warlord-turned-president who launched Liberia into 14 years of near-perpetual conflict in 1989.
Taylor and his aides have made repeated announcements since June that Taylor would step down in the interests of peace, only to hedge on timing or renege entirely. Nigeria has offered to take in Taylor.