Liberia rebel battle rages

? Explosions and machine-gun fire echoed in Liberia’s besieged capital Saturday as President Charles Taylor’s forces fought rebels pressing on the outskirts, sending tens of thousands of desperate residents to the U.S. Embassy seeking sanctuary.

“This city is not for the taking,” a defiant Taylor said in an interview with The Associated Press as he calmly directed Monrovia’s defense.

Early morning artillery and machine-gun fire in western suburbs drove residents from their homes, raised the specter of street fighting in the capital’s crowded center and prompted terrified Liberian civilians to throng the gates of the U.S. Embassy.

Bearing foam mattresses and other hastily gathered belongings, the masses huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in the rain on a muddy, rocky hill outside the embassy compound, asking for help from America — from where freed slaves sailed in the 19th century to found their war-ruined country.

“Send the Marines to guard us,” cried Spencer Suku, a student. “The place we are in now, only God can save us.”

Fighting eased markedly by afternoon, as rebels announced a cease-fire concerning humanitarian groups.

The rebels, urged on by U.S. authorities, pledged to stop their push on Monrovia for the time being. Many displaced residents trickled slowly back home from the U.S. Embassy, bundled belongings on heads.

Liberia’s main northern-based rebel movement has rolled south to set siege to the capital this week, their strongest move yet to depose Taylor — a former warlord indicted Wednesday on war crimes by an international tribunal in Sierra Leone for his involvement in a 10-year war there.

In a rare interview, Taylor vowed he would prevail over the insurgents.

“We think that we’re going to have it very difficult,” Taylor told The AP. But “I think they will be beaten back,” he added, seemingly unruffled by his dwindling territory. “This force that came to Monrovia is not greater than God.”

Fighting raged even after rebel delegates at a peace conference in Ghana promised Friday to ask their fighters to lay down their arms so talks could proceed, according to Mohammed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the regional bloc mediating the talks.