Religious riots between Christians and Muslims erupted in the Liberian capital Monrovia on Thursday night and continued on Friday morning until UN peacekeeping troops restored order and the government imposed an indefinite curfew.
Officials at the city's main John F Kennedy hospital were not immediately able to give casualty figures, but ambulances raced across the city all day carrying the wounded. Reuters reported that at least four people had been killed.
Residents said the trouble began on Thursday night over a land dispute in the eastern suburb of Paynesville and quickly escalated after a car was set on fire and burned down a nearby mosque.
Muslim crowds subsequently burned down three churches and on Friday morning, Christian youths armed with sticks, knives and broken bottles burned down the Muslim Congress High School in central Monrovia, the only Islamic high school in the city. They also tried unsuccessfully to burn down the two main mosques in central Monrovia. Some shops were looted.
The rioters were prevented from torching the city centre mosques by Nigerian peacekeepers who patrolled the city in white armoured cars while UN helicopter gunships clattered overhead. Ghanaian and Irish troops were also involved in helping to restore order.
Gyude Bryant, the chairman of Liberia's transitional government, said in a radio broadcast on Friday morning that he was imposing an indefinite curfew and everybody should stay at home. The streets subsequently emptied.
UN officials reported hearing gunfire at one point near the former German Embassy in the eastern suburbs, which now serves as the headquarters of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
Residents in Kakata, a town 50 km northeast of Monrovia, told IRIN by telephone rioting between Christians and Muslims also took place there, but UN peacekeepers soon restored order.
UN officials said gunfire was also reported during similar disturbances in Liberia's second city Buchanan, 120 km southeast of Liberia, and Ganta, on the northern frontier with Guinea.
Residents in Paynesville said the trouble began when a group of former fighters of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group beat up a man who objected to them building a house on his land. These men were from the Mandingo ethnic group. The injured man's family and neighbours subsequently set up a manhunt for all Mandingos in the area that led to the burning of the mosque.
Jacques Klein, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative in Liberia, said in a radio broadcast that the 15,000 UN peacekeepers in the country would respond with "maximum force" to any attempts to disturb the peace.
"I have given orders to UNMIL formed police units and military troops to deploy to all affected areas and to react with maximum force to any activities of violence against innocent civilians and property," Klein said in a broadcast on UNMIL Radio.
He warned that further instability could easily dissuade donors from disbursing US$450 million pledged earlier this year towards Liberia's reconstruction and could disrupt preparations for fresh elections in October 2005.
A seven-month programme to disarm and demobilise Liberia's three armed factions is due to end on Sunday and an official campaign to repatriate over 300,000 refugees from other West African countries got under way earlier this month.
But Klein warned: "Already some of the donors are beginning to question if Liberians are really ready to put violence behind them and work for peace, reconciliation and reconstruction."
There is widespread resentment against Mandingos in many parts of Liberia. They formed the backbone of LURD, Liberia's largest rebel movement, during the latter stages of the country's 14-year civil war, which ended in August 2003.