MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ The justice minister confirmed that army troops killed civilians while searching for rebels in northeastern Liberia, but he said the soldiers were acting in self-defense.

At a news conference Tuesday, Justice Minister Jenkins Scott denied soldiers indiscriminately killed civilians while hunting for dissidents who crossed into Nimba County from neighboring Ivory Coast.

''Upon the arrival, the army was attacked by people in civilian clothes, so what did you expect them to do?'' he said.

''For instance, if a mother has a baby in her arms and has a gun in her hand and is approaching you, will you say you should take the baby and put it down before attacking?'' he added.

Scott said the rebel National Patriotic Front, led by former Liberian civil servant Charles Taylor, was responsible for the deaths.

''Blame Charles Taylor and his cohorts,'' he said.

The government says Taylor sent about 100 rebels into Nimba County on Dec. 24 in an effort to overthrow President Samuel K. Doe, who came to power in a bloody 1980 coup.

Doe said the rebels killed more than 200 civilians in the next two weeks before his forces brought the situation under control.

But Africa Watch, a human rights group, said in Washington on Tuesday that Liberian soldiers killed at least 200 civilians after the attempted coup. Africa Watch is a division of the private Human Rights Watch that monitors abuses around the world.

Liberians who fled to Ivory Coast to escape the fighting also accused Doe's troops of gunning down civilians. As many as 10,000 Liberians reportedly have sought refuge in Ivory Coast since the fighting began.

Scott said two paramilitary officers were killed during the Nimba invasion and that 16 border officials were missing or dead.

Doe has accused Ivory Coast of harboring Liberian dissidents and claimed Taylor's band was trained in Burkina Faso and Libya.

In support of his charge, the government today televised statements from two men it described as captured rebels.

The men, identified as Harrison Diakpo and Alfred Suomie, both of Nimba County, said they first met some of Taylor's dissidents in Burkina Faso in 1987. Diakpo said he was living in Ivory Coast when his brother-in-law, whom he did not identify, urged Diakpo to join him for business reasons in the capital, where they were given bus tickets to Burkina Faso's capital.

From Burkina Faso, Diakpo said they were taken to a camp near Tripoli, Libya, where Libyan authorities gave them sophisticated military training.

He said they also received training at a farm in Ivory Coast owned by President Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

The Ivory Coast government has denied supporting coup attempts against Liberia.

On Tuesday, the Liberian Supreme Court ordered a new trial for 10 people convicted in 1988 of plotting to overthrow Doe's governmen.

The court refused to uphold the conviction because of ''errors and omissions as well as numerous irregularities committed by the parties and their counsels.''

The defendants were convicted in October, 1988, of plotting to assassinate Doe, but defense attorneys accused the state of jury tampering.