Rebels fighting to overthrow the government of Liberia have entered the central town of Gbarnga, a one-time headquarters of the now defunct rebel movement of President Charles Taylor.
When the Liberians United for Democracy and Development (Lurd) rebels went into the town on Friday morning they met with little resistance.
They had been engaged in intense fighting with government forces on the northern highway leading to Gbarnga for nearly a week and the control of this town is reported to be a big successes for them.
Defence Minister Daniel Chea told a news briefing that the rebels set a number of buildings ablaze in the town and killed scores of civilians.
Lurd has been trying to overthrow Mr Taylor's government since 1999.
Safe civilian passage
"As I speak to you, the city of Gbarnga is a scene of fierce battle between government and those hostile forces," he said.
He did not talk about military casualties.
Mr Chea said that government troops were closing in on the rebels and had occupied a strategic bridge leading to Gbarnga.
He said: "If Lurd forces have never made a tactical mistake before, they've made one today."
Government soldiers, he said had been ordered to stop fighting for 48 hours in most places to allow civilians to leave.
Panic in Monrovia
As part of preparations to engage the rebels in Gbarnga, the defence minister said government forces had re-captured the Camp Naama Military Barrack which was under rebel occupation last week.
Witnesses spoke of a fleet of military vehicles heading toward Gbarnga loaded with militia fighters and carrying different types of heavy weaponry.
Mr Chea said government forces could force the rebels from Gbarnga in a matter of days, but he acknowledged that the rebels were well-equipped.
The rebels, he said, had overwhelming support from outside Liberia.
News of the attack on Gbarnga - which is situated on the main road leading to rural Liberia and the border with Ivory Coast - is causing panic in the capital, Monrovia.