MONROVIA, LIBERIA, JUNE 11 -- On the day Liberian officials flew to neighboring Sierra Leone for peace talks with anti-government rebels, the bullet-riddled bodies of three respected and prominent Liberians were dumped at a downtown city morgue this morning, giving grisly evidence of mounting anarchy in this war-torn West African country.

The victims -- a mayor, council member and town elder from a suburb of this capital city -- all were believed slain by roving bands of uncontrolled government troops said to be searching for rebels of the National Patriotic Front in the capital and its suburbs.

Tonight, the embattled government of President Samuel K. Doe announced that Maj. Henry K. Johnson and two lieutenants had been arrested in connection with the killings. The Ministry of Defense said Johnson had led a contingent of soldiers who had been ordered to investigate reports of rebel movements in Clay-Ashland, an old Monrovia suburban settlement, but that Johnson "deviated from his mission."

The government promised a "speedy investigation" by the military court-martial board.

The victims were Americo-Liberians, descendants of families of freed American slaves who helped found this African republic in the 19th century. The slayings appeared to signal an ugly new chapter in Liberia's sixth-month-old civil war, which until now had generally involved only the region's indigenous tribal groups.

{Delegations from the Liberian government and the Liberian Council of Churches reached Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, where peace talks were to have begun today at the U.S. Embassy, but the talks were delayed when rebel representatives failed to arrive, the Associated Press reported.

{Rebel sources in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, said their delegation had to travel more than 600 miles overland -- some of the route on unpaved roads -- to reach Abidjan and make flight connections to Freetown. The sources also said the rebels sought assurances that any flight would be safe while flying over Liberia.

{State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said today in Washington that the United States was playing no role in the talks other than to provide a site. "The United States is a facilitator, not a mediator, in these talks,'' said Tutwiler.

{In a Cable News Network interview, Doe appealed today for U.S. intervention to help resolve the conflict.

{"I've been asking your country for the past six months to intervene," he said from Monrovia. "Up to this time I have not been able to get any word from them. I'm still hoping they will come to our rescue so a peaceful solution can be found to this crisis."}

Outside the morgue at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital crowds of grieving relatives gathered today to identify their kin. "Where we go from here?" wailed an Americo-Liberian woman, weeping uncontrollably.

The three slain officials were among 12 Americo-Liberians killed over the weekend.

Among the relatives was Erastmus Coleman, son of 67-year-old James Coleman, the Clay-Ashland council member whose body was dumped at the morgue. He said about 50 soldiers arrived in Clay-Ashland at about 5 p.m. Saturday and began to question and harass a number of young men. "We were standing under a tree when my father and the mayor went over and said, 'Leave the boys alone. They are good,' " the younger Coleman said.

Another witness said James Coleman, Mayor R. Vanjah Richards and Butler Freeman were taken away in a car when they protested widespread looting of the settlement by the soldiers.

Their bodies were later discovered and picked up by police on a roadside 15 miles north of the city.

News of the killings sparked panic throughout the Americo-Liberian community in Monrovia, a city already stricken with fear fed by a series of tribal killings.

Two days after the three men were abducted, Clay-Ashland -- once home to 3,000 people -- was virtually deserted, many residents having fled toward Monrovia or Sierra Leone.

For many years, Americo-Liberians controlled the economic and political life of Liberia until Doe overthrew the regime of William Tolbert in 1980 in a bloody coup in which many Americo-Liberians were slain.

Until now, the fighting has generally pitted members of Doe's Krahn tribe and an allied group, the Mandingos, against the Gios and Manos who hail from the heartland of the rebellion in Nimba county.

The leader of the rebellion, former government official Charles Taylor, is of partial Americo-Liberian descent, though the rebels are predominantly Gios and Manos. Many Americo-Liberians are afraid that the weekend killings may mean the start of greater reprisals against them.

The growing sense of chaos is also evident in the isolated and paralyzed state of Doe's government. Just five members of Doe's 14 member cabinet showed up for a high-level meeting last week. They left after an hour or so when Doe failed to appear. Most of Doe's cabinet ministers have fled the country.