MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Hundreds of Liberians desperately tried to climb up the sides of a Nigerian freighter to escape the increasingly brutal violence that has already ruined the capital and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of its residents.

As the Bulk Challenge chugged out to sea Sunday with some 2,500 Liberians aboard, fighting broke out among those left behind: many of them had paid $75 for the five-day trip to Ghana and even had their luggage packed on the ship.

Those aboard the freighter waved farewell while singing ``Lone Star Forever,'' a national hymn of Africa's first independent republic, founded by freed American slaves in 1847.

``It was unbelievable _ an exodus. It was pathetic,'' said Peter Sebok, the Dutch owner of West Coast Fisheries, whose offices are at the port.

The skies above were black with smoke after young fighters set fire to dozens of homes and buildings. Rocket-propelled grenades slammed into Monrovia's besieged military barracks, the flash point of a month of bloodshed.

Rebel leader Charles Taylor had vowed that the battle for the Barclay military barracks held by his enemies would be won by the weekend. But Ulimo-J supporters of his archrival, Roosevelt Johnson, fought fiercely as Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia resumed shelling the barracks.

The clashes shattered hopes that Johnson's evacuation from the country Friday _ carried out by American troops _ would spur moves toward ending the violence.

Instead, the fighting became even more brutal.

Hundreds of the 10,000 Liberians who have sought shelter at the U.S. Embassy residential compound watched in horror Sunday as five of Taylor's fighters were executed down a hill below.

The five men had their throats slit; one had his ears chopped off. Later, a boy of about 12 years danced nude around the bodies, waving an assault rifle above his head in a victory cheer.

``Oh, it's Butt Naked, it's Butt Naked,'' the civilians murmured, using the nickname the Ulimo-J troops adopted because they fight in the nude.

African peacekeeping troops, who had retreated up the street, entered the fighting Sunday, shooting and killing two of Taylor's militiamen who tried to prevent them from crossing a bridge.

The troops of rival warlords have held the two bridges over the Mesurado River, the main routes into the city, making it difficult for anyone to move in and out of downtown.

Nonetheless, tens of thousands of Liberians fled the city over the weekend, heading for rural areas already plagued by disease and serious shortages of food and medicine.

Even before the latest violence, six years of war had already claimed the lives of more than 150,000 Liberians and forced half of the country's 2.8 million people to flee their homes.

A six-man Council of State was seated Sept. 1 after international mediators brokered the country's 13th peace accord in six years of war. The council was designed to prepare Liberia for elections by August.

Taylor is a member of the council. Johnson was a Cabinet minister, but he was fired and charged with murder in connection with clashes in March.

His refusal to surrender sparked fighting that quickly spread into a city-wide spree of looting, shelling and gunfire. Johnson had been barricaded in the military barracks since April 6, but was hustled out in an armored convoy to the U.S. Embassy on Friday.

American helicopters then flew him to neighboring Sierra Leone and on to Accra, Ghana, later that night for peace talks scheduled to begin Wednesday.

Taylor has refused to attend the talks, and said the council's civilian chairman, Wilton Sankawulo, would represent Liberia at the peace talks.