The White House Tuesday described the situation in Liberia as "dynamic," reports CBS News Correspondent Peter Maer. Spokesman Scott McClellan said the president still has not decided whether to send U.S. troops to stabilize the situation. He insisted the U.S. is "actively engaged" in diplomacy to end the fighting.
U.S. officials have said that 4,500 more American sailors and Marines have been ordered to position themselves closer to Liberia, if needed for an evacuation of Americans, peacekeeping or some other mission.
Sources tell CBS News, however, that Mr. Bush is in no hurry to put these troops on the ground in Liberia; he wants them to go in as "peacekeepers, not peacemakers."
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press Monday, embattled Liberian President Charles Taylor repeated his call for a promised West African peacekeeping force to arrive quickly to "bring some sanity" to the nation founded by freed American slaves.
But Taylor said the best way to ensure stability was through U.S. troops on the ground, in addition to the Marines guarding the U.S. Embassy. "An American contingent would be excellent."
Rebels and government forces battled on Tuesday for control of two strategic bridges connecting Monrovia's port and downtown — the symbolic heart of the country and the site of Taylor's offices.
Liberians hunted for food and water one day after a thunderous barrage of shells rained down on the capital. The offensive was the rebels' third attempt to take Monrovia — Taylor's last stronghold.
Defense Minister Daniel Chea claimed the death toll was well over 600 people, but there was no way to independently confirm the figure. Aid groups and hospitals have put the number of dead above 90, but say they expect the number to rise.
"Last night, we counted about 65 dead," CBS News' Stefan Faris reported from Monrovia. "That's including only those people that were brought dead to the hospital or those deposited at the gates of the American embassy as a form of protest. So the true number is probably somewhere between that 65 and that 600."
Covered by blue and gray plastic, bodies lay in the rain Tuesday outside the U.S. Embassy compound in Monrovia, dragged there by Liberians furious that American forces have not come to their rescue.
American helicopters landed in the Embassy compound in a driving rain Monday, dropping off about half of a 41-member Marine security team. The troops, who were sent to beef up security at the embassy, evacuated about 23 foreign humanitarian workers and journalists.
Clutching bags and backpacks, the evacuees ran to the aircraft as Marines and embassy officials shouted: "Go! Go!" Among them were the United Nations' last seven foreign staffers, who had returned to Monrovia just two weeks earlier during a lull in fighting.
The State Department criticized the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy for "reckless and indiscriminate shooting" and appealed to neighboring African countries to guard against weapons going to Liberia.
Joe Wylie, a rebel delegate at peace talks in Ghana, said the government was also firing shells.
The rebels were "not responsible for shooting mortars into the embassy," Wylie said. "We have our backs to the U.S. Embassy. ... They (government forces) were shooting at us."
Nigerian army Col. Chukwuemeka Onwuamaegbu said West African chiefs of defense staff were meeting in Dakar, Senegal on Tuesday to finalize the composition and deployment schedule of a possible West African peacekeeping force.
One "possible option," he said, was to divert to Liberia's capital a Nigerian mechanized infantry battalion of some 700 to 1,000 troops from Sierra Leone, where the soldiers have taken part in a 3,000-strong Nigerian deployment to the U.N.'s Sierra Leone peacekeeping force.
Onwuamaegbu added that Nigeria-based troops could also be sent, stressing that "no final decision has been taken yet."