Aid for ill, hungry Liberians follows troops to Monrovia

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Desperately needed aid flowed toward Liberia's capital Tuesday as the arrival of West African peacekeeping troops brought a dramatic easing of two weeks of gunbattles in the rebel-besieged city.

Nigerian troops began arriving Monday at the vanguard of what will be a 3,250 strong force seeking to end 14 years of carnage and usher warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor into exile.

No man's land

Workers with Medicins sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, also traveled from one zone to the other, waving their agency's flag. They crossed the no man's land of the bridge from rebel territory to carry out on a stretcher a 24-year-old Indian who was shot during looting of his business three days earlier.

At nearby Old Bridge, government fighters -- many of them 10- or 12-year-old boys, barely bigger than their rifles -- waved at rebels on the other side, smoked marijuana and played among themselves.

Few of the boy fighters dared even to set foot on the bridge itself, its surface carpeted with bullet casings.

"You tell your people we are ready for peace. But if they don't give us money, we don't give up our guns," said a 27-year-old government second lieutenant, giving the battle name of Victor Fire.

President Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, said U.S. officials were "very encouraged" by Monday's deployment. He pledged U.S. financial and logistical assistance and repeated Bush's demand that Taylor step down.

At Monrovia's airport, white U.N. helicopters ferried in more Nigerian troops, 20 at a time. Jumping out in formation with machine guns ready, the new arrivals joined comrades already setting up temporary bases, standing guard and walking foot patrols.

Aid arrives

Pallets of tons of food for Liberia's hungry people stacked up overnight, as aid channels opened up after the launch of the peace mission. Nigerian force commanders said they could bring the food inside the capital only in coming days, after sufficient troops and armored vehicles arrive.

Flights also brought bundles of medical supplies, and aid workers loaded ships with supplies and staff at ports in neighboring Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, ready to resume operations in Monrovia.

Inside the capital, once crowded markets have been reduced to piles of potato greens and chili peppers, with rice -- in recent days selling for $1 a cup -- nowhere to be found. Gasoline, when available, hit $30 a gallon.

Well over 1,000 civilians have died in fighting since the latest rebel offensive started July 19. Rebels cut off the port and the main water plant, leaving Monrovia's 1.3 million residents and refugees hungry, thirsty, and, increasingly, wracked by cholera and other diseases.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees hopes "the deployment will stabilize the security situation on the ground and enable aid agencies to resume helping hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by the conflict," spokesman Kris Janowski said in Geneva.

More flights in U.N.-provided helicopters were planned over coming days until the first roughly 770-member Nigerian battalion is assembled in Monrovia by Aug. 17, U.N. peacekeeping official Hedi Annabi said in New York.

The United States, which oversaw the founding of Liberia by freed American slaves in the 19th century, is to begin flying in the second Nigerian battalion around Aug. 15, Annabi said.

Overjoyed crowds greeted the first wave of peacekeepers, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the "swift action" taken by the West Africans.

The West African deployment was approved last week by the U.N. Security Council, which also backed a U.S.-proposed resolution to speed a broader U.N. peacekeeping force within months.

Taylor has promised repeatedly to yield power since June 4, when a joint U.N. and Sierra Leone war crimes court indicted him for supporting rebels in that nation. He also is accused of gun- and diamond-trafficking and other dealings that have fueled conflicts across West Africa.

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