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LURD rebels reportedly fought their way into the western suburbs of the Liberian capital Monrovia over the weekend as tens of thousands of residents took to their heels towards the city centre to escape from a deadly hail of mortar bombs and gunfire.

The embattled Liberian President Charles Taylor said he would never abandon his people, even as the rebels closed in, vowing to fight to the last man.

According to the US-based ABS news channel, rebels streamed across a river bridge and took positions a few kilometres from the city centre which they hammered with volleys of mortar rounds, killing at least one person, witnesses said.

But forces loyal to Taylor's government, including rag-tag civil militias said they had pushed back the rebels after they passed Monrovia's port area and neared another bridge at the entrance to the city centre, although the military situation on the ground appeared far from clear.

This third rebel attack on the troubled capital shattered hopes that promised West African peacekeepers, and perhaps US troops, could deploy quickly to allow President Taylor to step down and avoid a fresh bloodbath.

Taylor's Defence Minister Daniel Chea, who was carrying a pistol while encouraging civilians not to demonstrate near the frontline for fear of being hit by raining rebel mortars, said 20 civilians had been killed in the fighting around Monrovia in the past two days although it was difficult to confirm.

Diplomats said a French photographer was wounded during the fighting in the coastal city and was in a serious condition receiving treatment at the US embassy.

Over 300 people were killed in the last two previous rebel attacks on the capital and Aid agencies estimate that 200,000 people displaced by fighting and squating in camps in the outskirts of Monrovia were on the move again in search of safer grounds.

President Charles Taylor's spokesman Vaanii Paasawe blamed a U.N. arms embargo for the country's plight. The embargo was imposed to punish Taylor's regime for trading guns for diamonds with rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

"They have tied our hands and feet and thrown us into a boxing ring," said Paasawe.

Mr Taylor's government and rebels signed a cease-fire on June 17 at talks in Ghana, but the truce has repeatedly been violated.

Mr Taylor was recently indicted for alleged war crimes in Sierra Leone. The US has promised to send troops to support a West African keeping force to be deployed to maintain the peace but said would only do so when Taylor leaves. Taylor for his part has vowed to leave only after the deployment of peacekeepers.

Caught up, however, in this sad dilemma are the poor innocent civilians who have already paid a heavy price for a war that has been part of the country's polity for the past 14 years.