MONROVIA, Liberia -- West African peacekeepers headed to a region north of the capital Thursday to investigate reports of fighting that has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee despite a peace deal.
The small team left Monrovia by road for Totota, about 60 miles north, said Col. Theo-philus Tawiah of Ghana, the peace mission's chief of staff.
The sound of gunfire and mortar explosions sparked an exodus from Totota and nearby Zensu on Tuesday, but the nature of the fighting is unclear.
Many believe that combatants are firing into the air to empty towns for looting or land grabs before peacekeepers deploy into the interior.
The upheaval has kept the countryside north of Monrovia in turmoil despite an Aug. 18 peace deal. Peacekeepers monitoring the deal have kept mostly to Monrovia.
On Wednesday, about 15,000 families that fled Totota and Zensu filled the roads around Salala, 45 miles north of Monrovia.
An aid convoy including vehicles from the U.N. World Food Program and other humanitarian agencies was due in Salala later Thursday, said Kai Jelly of Lutheran World Service.
In Monrovia, meanwhile, 300 women in white headscarves and marched through the rain, calling on forces to abide by the August peace deal.
"You're supposed to be our liberators, but if you finish everyone, who will you rule?" group leader Leymah Gbowee asked a rebel official.
Sekou Fofana at his headquarters in northern Monrovia.
Fofana said he would do what he could, but denied his fighters were involved in skirmishes at Totota. One older woman threw herself in the mud at Fofana's feet, screaming.
The women delivered a similar appeal to the office of Jacques Klein, the U.N. special representative for Liberia.
There have been reports of clashes in the interior for weeks. The area was home to two strongholds of former President Charles Taylor, who had made a base at the provincial capital of Gbarnga and put his most-feared forces at the town of Gbatala.
Fofana said his troops now controlled Gbatala, 15 miles north of Totota. It wasn't immediately possible to confirm the claim.
Meanwhile, a separate group of 500 civilians from the same region also marched through the rain in Monrovia, calling for an end to the fighting.
The group demanded that international courts try those alleged to have carried out war crimes over the last 14 years of fighting, which began when Taylor launched a rebellion in 1989. As part of the peace deal, Taylor stepped down and went into exile in Nigeria last month.
The group carried placards reading, "We are tired of suffering, America stop the war."
The United States now has about 30 troops on the ground, acting as liaisons with the West African peace force. Another 70 Marines guard the U.S. Embassy, and a 150-member rapid-reaction force is poised off Liberia.
The West African peacekeeping force now comprises about 2,900 soldiers and should reach its full strength of 3,500 troops on Sept. 10, a peace force official said on condition of anonymity. The remaining troops, due in the next week, include 150 from Togo, 200 from Ghana, and 250 from Benin.