MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Rebels are slowly advancing from suburb to suburb of this capital, where an atmosphere of fear and lawlessness prevails along with expectations President Samuel Doe will soon take flight.

But this morning, though gunfire was being heard in some outlying areas of the city, Doe's forces remained in control. Christian radio station ELWA, monitored in neighboring Abidjan, said the city streets remained empty.

The besieged Liberian leader met Wednesday with the U.S. ambassador, whose government has offered Doe safe passage.

Doe has agreed in principle to resign, seeking assurances of safety for himself and members of his minority Krahn tribe. Most of Doe's Cabinet ministers and senior administration officials have fled the country.

Rebel spokesman Thomas Woewiyu, who is based in the United States, accused the U.S. government of delaying Doe's exit. He said Wednesday that Washington opposes rebel leader Charles Taylor taking power himself.

The United States has publicly supported an effort by several West African countries to negotiate an end to the war.

The capital would be the final conquest for the rebels, who mounted their insurgency six months ago in the West African nation of 2.4 million people.

The city of a half million people has been without water or electricity for the past week and plagued by shootings and lootings by army soldiers.

At least 17 bodies were found Wednesday at different locations, some of them shot, witnesses said.

U.S. Ambassador Peter De Vos drove under heavy U.S. Marine guard through streets of shuttered and barred shops to Doe's fortress-like mansion for about an hour of talks Wednesday.

Officials declined to give details of their discussion.

Washington put its naval task force, which includes 2,100 Marines, on alert off the Liberian coast. It has offered to evacuate Doe, but he has not asked to leave, the U.S. State Department has said.

The rebels, who accuse Doe of corruption and human rights abuses, renewed their offensive after peace talks broke down last month.

Soldiers at a roadblock in Monrovia said 1,000 rebels were advancing on the eastern suburb of Congo Town from Paynesville suburb, which echoed with artillery and gunfire Wednesday.

Firing also could be heard on the city's western outskirts.

Rebel sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said only 800 men were involved in the assault on the capital.

Soldiers went on a spree of shooting and looting shops during a dusk-to- dawn curfew in Monrovia on Wednesday.

The troops, some of whom appeared to be intoxicated, fired into the air and harassed passers-by for money and cigarettes. Others roamed the city in stolen cars and pickup trucks bristling with M-16 rifles.

Doe has asked for assurances for his own safety and those of fellow Krahns if he does capitulate.

But Woewiyu, who participated in the peace talks, said: ''There will not be any mass retribution. He (Doe) need not make that a bargaining point.''

The civil war has pitted the Krahns and Mandingos against the Gios and Manos, the tribes to which many rebels belong.

A close Doe adviser, Elvin Jones, minister for presidential affairs, was the latest Cabinet member to leave the country. Jones flew to neighboring Ivory Coast on an unscheduled flight Wednesday.

Liberia's army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Henry S. Dubar, who fled last weekend, told a newspaper in neighboring Sierra Leone:

''A general should know when to retreat. After counting the casualities and assessing the supplies, arms and ammunitions, a general must be able to decide whether to continue fighting or not. I saw our people without light, and drinking unsafe water. At that point I decided to ground arms.''

Residents said Doe has armed Krahns who fear that rebels will slaughter them. Two months ago, he emptied the prisons of criminals and conscripted them into his rapidly depleting army. Many soldiers are Krahns.

One Gio said several of his Krahn friends had been given U.S.-made, M-16 rifles and army uniforms in the last few days.

A reporter said he had met a Finance Ministry official, with no military training, who had also been given a uniform and a gun.

Doe seized power in a bloody 1980 coup that toppled descendants of former slaves who founded Liberia in 1847.