MONROVIA, LIBERIA, JUNE 9 -- The Liberian government and religious leaders announced today that rebels of the National Patriotic Front have agreed to discuss peace and that the first talks may begin as soon as next week in Freetown, capital of neighboring Sierra Leone.

The talks would be mediated by the Liberian Council of Churches, whose three-point peace plan was accepted Friday by President Samuel K. Doe. The church council also has asked the United States to send peace-keeping troops to Liberia, the group's president, Levee Moulton, said.

The Christian and Moslem religious mediators said they had contacted the rebels through U.S. officials, who refused to comment on the government report today.

{In Washington, the State Department said it viewed the agreement to hold peace talks "as a positive move" but that the United States still planned to fly 360 Americans out of the country on three evacuation flights Sunday.}

Charles Taylor, whose rebel army has moved to within 35 miles of the capital, told reporters at the rebel-held port of Buchanan that he was willing to negotiate but had stipulated to the church council that Doe, Vice President Henry Moniba and army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Henry Dubar must step down, something the president has consistently refused to do. Taylor's remarks were carried by the British Broadcasting Corp. and reported by Reuter.

However, the religious leaders told the government that the rebels had agreed to talks "without preconditions," said a government spokesman, Deputy Information Minister Moses Washington.

Despite the discrepancy, the rebels will send a delegation to the talks, a rebel spokesman, Eric Dukaleu, told the Associated Press.

The government spokesman said the negotiations will begin Monday at the U.S. Embassy in Sierra Leone and initially will deal with establishing a cease-fire in the six-month-old civil war that has threatened to topple Doe.

But it remains to be seen whether this latest development will help defuse the violence in this West African nation that many Liberians fear may lead to a major bloodbath.

Liberia's civil war began last December with an attack by a small group of rebel soldiers on a government outpost in Nimba County. After a brutal government counterattack that featured widespread killing of civilians and triggered waves of nearly 200,000 refugees, the war rapidly inflamed volatile tribal strife in which ancient regional animosities are being played out in brutal massacres.

The effects of this violence are no better reflected than in the over-crowded floors of an old Lutheran church here on the southeastern edge of the capital.

The fetid air of St. Peter's Church reverberates with the wails of scores of barefoot children. Steamy rooms and hallways are crammed with makeshift beds made of foam rubber and cardboard. In stairwells and courtyards, many of the 2,300 people living here huddle behind stone walls and fearfully plead with visitors for any help they can give to stop the nation's tribal violence from spreading here.

"These people are Gios and Manos. They came here for safe haven because they do not feel their lives are secure. They know their people have been harassed, abducted and killed before," said Methodist Bishop Arthur F. Kulah. "I pray to God it does not happen here."

Headless corpses have been discovered in the streets of this city. Rebel forces are accused of growing numbers of atrocities against members of the president's tribe. And today, at St. Peter's Church, soldiers seeking haven told of a mass killing earlier this week of as many as 100 Liberian army troops by rival tribesmen within the army.

Like most ethnic tensions in Africa, Liberia's tribal strife is a complex web of political and social interest and passion that is difficult to explain adequately and all too easy to simplify. In the most basic terms, the conflict involves four of the nation's 16 tribes, none of which hold a majority in the population of 2.2 million.

The Gios and Manos hail from Nimba County, and are among the more educated and literate people in Liberia. In the current strife, these tribes are aligned against the Mandingos, who hail from parts of Nimba County and neighboring Guinea, and the Krahns of Grand Gedeh County, of which Doe is a member. During the 10 years of his rule, widely criticized as repressive and corrupt, Doe has apportioned the lion's share of jobs and other forms of patronage to his fellow Krahns.

Tribal differences generally are based on origin and language, but most Liberians speak English, cannot tell a person's tribe by his physical appearance and often can only tell ethnic identity by last names.

"Krahns have names like Glay, Gay, Talu," said Lydia Dieneh, a 23-year-old Gio woman sheltered at St. Peter's. "You can tell a Gio or a Mano because his name may be Saye, Nya or Gono."

The distinctions may sound negligible, but at military checkpoints in Liberia, a soldier's request for a traveler's name invariably causes dread and panic.

Generally these minority groups have coexisted peacefully. Ironically the tribal bloodshed has been triggered by a rebellion led by Taylor, who is neither Krahn nor Gio but a descendant of freed American slaves known as Americo-Liberians, who founded this nation in 1821.

Tribal passions were ignited soon after Doe's troops went on a rampage against suspected rebels in Nimba County.

As the violence continued, hundreds of Gios and Manos sought shelter in a United Nations compound here, only to flee when Krahn soldiers turned up one night last week and took nine men away. Two men survived what later turned out to be a mass execution near the beach here.

Earlier this week, hundreds of Gio and Mano soldiers in Doe's own army were disarmed and jailed in a barracks stockade in the capital. Two soldiers who said they escaped the stockade today charged that many of the men were killed. The report could not be independently confirmed.

Today, nearly 10,000 Gios and Manos are huddling for safety in a half-dozen churches and other buildings in Monrovia.