A further outbreak of fighting in central Liberia sent more than 50,000 displaced civilians living in camps near the town of Totota fleeing towards Monrovia, 109 km to the south, on Wednesday.
An IRIN correspondent who visited the area encountered a tide of frightened people trekking down the road towards the capital with mattresses and bundles of belongings on their heads.
"This is a human tragedy," Ross Mountain, the UN Special Humanitarian Coordinator for Liberia told IRIN as he witnessed the scene. "There are more than 50,000 IDPs (internally displaced people) now on the move from all of the camps in Totota and these are people who have suffered multiple displacements."
Local officials said the number of people abandoning Totota was even higher.
Defence Minister Daniel Chea told IRIN that fighters of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD)rebel movement had attacked villages in the area.
“This morning we received reports of a LURD aggression 12 km north of Totota. This has sparked off fear among the displaced, causing many of them to leave the area,” he said.
However, civilians fleeing the clashes, told an IRIN correspondent on the road just south of Totota, that one of four camps around the town had been looted and occupied by government militiamen. They said fighting around Totota began on Tuesday.
Government militiamen observing the exodus prevented IRIN from speaking to Maima Kollie, a woman in her mid-30s who had just delivered a baby by the roadside. Those accompanying her said they were headed south to Kakata, 45 km from Monrovia, with the aim of reaching the capital if possible.
The four camps at Totota - Maimu one two and three and EJ Yancy - together accommodated around 60,000 displaced people. But they appeared to be emptying on Wednesday as a never ending stream of people, including many children, streamed south along the main road to the capital.
A further 75,000 people lived in Totota town, but many of them were also on the move.
Speaking in Flala, a town 14 km south of Totota, Mountain said: We have contacted ECOMIL (the West African peacekeeping force in Liberia)to carry out a patrol around this area and the United States to fly over to show a sense of security.”
“The humanitarian community is working on a plan in collaboration with other non-governmental organisations to tackle this movement of people,” he added.
ECOMIL has so far deployed just over 2,000 troops in Liberia, most of whom are based in Monrovia. This week, they commenced patrols outside the capital.
The US navy has a task force of three assault ships sitting offshore, carrying 2,300 marines, helicopter gunships and Harrier ground attack jets. Washington has so far been reluctant to deploy the troops onshore in large numbers.
Nulbah Kennedy, the official coordinator at Salala camp for 30,000 displaced people, 20 km from Totota on the road to Monrovia, said nearly 10,000 more arrived there from Totota on Tuesday night after the latest fighting broke out.
On Wednesday, a fresh stream of people flooded into the camp, which is now seriously overcrowded.
Defence Minister Chea denied claims by the displaced that their camps had been attacked by government fighters, but accused LURD of attacking government positions nearby.
“I am not aware that our militias have taken over any camps," Chea told IRIN. "In any case, they are attacking us right now around Ziensu, 20 km north of Totota, so
there would be no reason for our men to stay in a camp there.”
Two weeks ago LURD forces advanced south from Gbarnga, the capital of Bong county, towards Totota, overrunning the town of Gbatala, which had until then been held by government forces.
That attack sparked off a first exodus of displaced civilians, fleeing on foot in driving rain towards Monrovia.
On Tuesday the US Ambassador to Liberia, John Blaney, launched a fresh appeal to all the warring parties to observe the terms of a peace agreement signed in the Ghanaian capital, Accra on 18 August.
“President Bush and the World community are insisting on peace for all the Liberian people. We call upon all sides to end pointless fighting on all fronts. The war is over,“ Blaney said in a statement.
“That means, among things, that all troops on all sides and their commanders need to understand that killing is crime for which they may be held personally responsible,” he added.
Liberia has been in a state of near constant civil war for 14 years.
The government finally signed a peace agreement with LURD and another rebel faction, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) after losing control of more than 80 percent of the country and failing to repulse a rebel attack on Monrovia in June and July.