MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) – Violence between Muslims and Christians engulfed Liberia’s war-battered capital Friday, with machete-wielding crowds rampaging through the streets and U.N. peacekeepers firing warning shots and tear gas to restore order amid burned mosques and churches.

At least three people were killed – inadvertently crushed under the wheels of a U.N. armored vehicle trying to disperse a crowd, a policeman said. The number of dead and wounded elsewhere was unclear, with some residents reporting up to five dead. There was no official count.

The U.N. special envoy to Liberia, Jacques Klein, said U.N. troops and Liberian police detained 168 people, and peacekeepers were ordered to patrol through the night.

Klein, an American, said he had ordered peacekeepers to “react with maximum force, and this means shoot to kill.”

The violence, Klein said, had “resulted in unacceptable attacks on innocent civilians and extensive destruction of private properties, including houses of worship, business centers and residences.”

Appealing for calm, interim head of state Gyude Bryant ordered an around-the-clock curfew in Monrovia. By dusk, the crumbling seaside city was largely quiet, but sporadic gunshots could still be heard.

The day marked some of the worst violence in the capital since the end of a rebel war last year.

“We assure you that we will arrest and bring to justice the perpetrators of today’s violence,” Bryant said in a radio broadcast. “We will use all the forces at our disposal to protect the peace-loving people and residents of this country.”

Troubles began overnight in the Paynesville district of eastern Monrovia, where at least three churches and two mosques were set ablaze along with several houses, witnesses said.

As dawn broke, plumes of black smoke rose from the area and sporadic volleys of gunfire could be heard. Throngs of Christians and Muslims, mostly young men carrying sticks, knives, machetes and Kalashnikov rifles, hurled rocks and stones at each other.

One U.N. armored personnel carrier trying to disperse a crowd inadvertently crushed and killed three people who had been knocked down as they tried to flee, a policeman said on condition of anonymity. An Associated Press photographer saw three mangled bodies near a market where the incident was said to have occurred, although one of the bodies was later removed. U.N. officials could not be reached for comment.

One man who was stabbed in the head with a knife, lay apparently unconscious in a pool of blood on a main road in Paynesville. Another was bludgeoned in the face, and a third, shot in the leg, was carried to safety by two friends.

Pastor Benjamin Hajan said attackers burned down his Paynesville church early Friday, saying they did so in retaliation for Christian attacks on their houses earlier in the day.

“I don’t know what is going to happen to us tonight; only God will save us,” Hajan said.

Ibrahim Soko, a 23-year-old Muslim student, said Christian attackers burned down his mosque.

“What I want from Liberians, both Muslims and Christians, is to stop this thing,” he said.

It was unclear what sparked the mayhem. Religious violence is rare in Liberia, a tiny nation in West Africa founded in the 1800s by freed American slaves that has been beset by war for much of the last three years. About 40 percent of the country’s 3.3 million people are Christians, while about 20 percent are Muslim. The rest follow indigenous beliefs.

A nationwide program do disarm former combatants is supposed to end Sunday, and Bryant said the government had “credible intelligence” the violence was “planned, organized and financed by evil forces who do not want to see an end to the disarmament and the success of the peace process.”

Bryant said he had asked peacekeepers to protect mosques, churches and schools as well as businesses that had been looted. The U.N. police commander in Liberia, Mark Kroeker, said the troops had rescued several people from angry crowds in Monrovia.

Most of the violence was centered in Paynesville, but small skirmishes spread to other parts of Monrovia, including a port and some districts outside the capital.

In Kakata, 35 miles north of Monrovia, two mosques were also reportedly destroyed, a local journalist said. Crowds tried to destroy a third mosque, but were stopped by peacekeeping troops, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. Ambassador John William Blaney warned that day’s violence could “undermine the good will of the international community.”

Liberia is struggling to recover from an vicious era of fighting that began in 1989 and claimed at least 150,000 lives.

A three-year rebel war ended last year when President Charles Taylor accepted a peace deal that entailed exile in Nigeria and paved the way for a transitional government.

A 15,000-member U.N. peace force is stationed in the country, which is expected to hold elections in October 2005.

Sekou Conneh, who heads the main Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy rebel group, called on ex-fighters to remain indoors, saying, “we are in no way going to be a part of that. … The war is over.”

Associated Press photographer Pewee Flomoku in Monrovia contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-29-04 1739EDT

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