Zensu, Liberia — Civilians fleeing by the thousands cried out for rescue Wednesday, as a first trip into Liberia's countryside showed the war-ruined nation's nightmare is far from over.
Families streaming from the north clutched bone-thin babies and spoke of starvation and near-nightly gunfire and mortars, despite a week-old peace deal.
"Our children are dying. We're dropping them on the road," shouted 42-year-old Fatu Leonfay, who appealed for help from West African peacekeepers. "If they don't come, we'll die."
Emaciated women around her cradled naked children, their bellies bloated by malnutrition.
A nearly month-old West African peace mission has calmed the capital, Monrovia, where rebels lifted 2 1/2 months of siege after forcing out warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor on Aug. 11. Taylor flew into exile in Nigeria.
Reports of fighting persist in the northeast, southeast and center. Almost all of it is believed to be small-scale, with militias or individual fighters scrambling to acquire last bits of territory and spoils ahead of peacekeepers' push into the interior.
West African leaders have promised a 3,250-strong force to help cement the Aug. 18 peace deal, meant to end 14 years of bloodletting ushered in by Taylor.
However, West Africans appear to still have only about 1,500 troops on the ground. Col. Theophilus Tawiah, chief of staff of the West African peace force, said he expected troops from Mali to arrive today and from Senegal to arrive Saturday.
The U.N. Security Council has authorized a U.N. force to follow the West Africans, with the world body's envoy for Liberia, Jacques Klein, calling for 15,000 troops.
With peacekeepers yet to venture into Liberia's interior, families ran out, screaming for help, at the sight of some of the first civilian vehicles from the south.
Defense Minister Daniel Chea and government forces in the field said genuine fighting persists north of Zensu, with Chea reporting "heavy fighting" near Gbarnga and Gbatala.
Gbarnga, 110 miles from Monrovia, was Taylor's base during a 1989-1996 civil war, and repeatedly has changed hands during the four-year rebellion that ousted him.
Nearby Gbatala was the base of Taylor's feared anti-terrorist unit, his personal army. Squad members used it as a headquarters for torture and killings before fleeing when Taylor left the country.