MONROVIA, LIBERIA, JUNE 2 -- Rebel troops advancing on the capital today appeared to be meeting little resistance from government forces.

Reporters who drove the 35 miles from Monrovia to the airport, near which the main rebel force had encamped, said the only government troops in sight were 20 soldiers manning a roadblock between the airport and the capital.

The rebels were seen fanning out, traveling off the roads toward the capital. By avoiding the winding roads and marching through the bush, they would cut the distance from the airport to 25 miles.

The only significant military presence in the capital was around Doe's executive mansion, where 2,000 Israeli-trained troops of his elite Special Anti-Terrorist Unit were stationed.

No fighting was reported today, and it was not clear what has happened to the remainder of Doe's 5,300-man army.

A diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the latest developments could mean that many soldiers had deserted, or that the fighting had stopped because a deal between Doe and the rebels was being worked out.

According to Liberian military and Western diplomatic sources, hundreds of Doe's mainly untrained, ill-equipped and poorly paid troops are known to have deserted since Charles Taylor and 200 rebels invaded from neighboring Ivory Coast last Christmas Eve. Taylor's army has since mushroomed to a force of about 4,000 fighters.

The government broadcast orders for troops who had returned from battle to assemble at the Barclay Training Center, the main barracks in Monrovia. A similar call last week mustered only 70 soldiers, diplomats said.

Residents of this capital of 500,000 people, already suffering from shortages of food and lack of running water and electricity, braced for a heavy battle.

Workers were seen topping the walls of the Italian Embassy compound with barbed wire, while the iron-grid gates of the French Embassy were being reinforced with sheets of heavy metal.

Rebel troops already control the country's main port of Buchanan, 90 miles southeast of the capital, and have been advancing from Buchanan and Kakata, 35 miles to the northeast. Taylor's forces control well over half of this West African nation.

U.S. Navy warships carrying 2,100 Marines were en route from the Mediterranean to evacuate Americans if necessary, Pentagon sources said, and were expected to arrive off Liberia this weekend.

U.S. Embassy officials said about 2,000 U.S. citizens, including 110 embassy personnel, and many missionaries and people of Liberian origin, remain in the country. Last month, about 6,000 U.S. citizens were in Liberia.

The British frigate Andromeda and a tanker arrived off the Liberian coast Friday to help in any evacuation, according to the Defense Ministry in London.

The rebels accuse the Doe government of corruption, economic mismanagement and human rights abuses. More than 1,000 people have been killed since fighting broke out, most of them civilians allegedly slain by government troops.

Reuter added from Monrovia:

The Red Cross today officially began protecting refugees from the civil war, which has become a bloody tribal feud between Gios and Manos supporting the rebels and Krahns backing Doe.

Red Cross flags flew at a Lutheran church center in Monrovia occupied by more than 1,300 people, most from the Gio and Mano tribes, who moved in after soldiers of the ruling Krahn tribe attacked them at a nearby United Nations camp.

At least one person was reported killed, 30 to 40 abducted and others missing after masked soldiers attacked the U.N. compound Wednesday, prompting the United Nations to evacuate its staff here.