Insurgents from Liberia's main rebel movement have pledged to pull back from the capital at noon Thursday and cede the vital port to a small-but-growing peacekeeping force meant to impose calm in Liberia after 14 years of near-constant strife.
Any joy felt by Monrovians over Monday's long-awaited departure of former warlord and President Charles Taylor has been muted by starvation and the threat of disease in the besieged city, divided into isolated pockets by recent fighting.
Carolyn McAskie, U.N. deputy emergency relief coordinator, said if rebels pull back, the ship could land and aid workers could this weekend begin moving food into government-held areas of Monrovia, where people cut off from supplies have been subsisting for weeks on leaves.
She emphasized the danger of gunmen trying to loot the transport, and appealed to the West African force for security. "Peacekeepers must provide support to humanitarian workers," she told The Associated Press.
And even as officials negotiated a deal Tuesday with Liberia's main rebel group to open the port, a second rebel group began a push toward Monrovia from its stronghold in the country's southeast.
By Wednesday, the insurgents had halted at the St. John's River, 12 miles south of the capital's international airport, headquarters for the peacekeepers, said the force's Nigerian commander, Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, after a team had scouted the area.
Refugees have been fleeing what they called indiscriminate attacks, raising fears that rebels may be fighting for a share of power since Taylor resigned as president and went into exile in Nigeria.
The refugees, moving on foot toward Monrovia, on Tuesday said rebels just a few miles from the airport were attacking with machetes, killing men, women and children indiscriminately. One man, who said he was afraid to give his name, said militia were entering homes, killing men of fighting age.
But Okonkwo said he was unaware of fighting or attacks on civilians on Wednesday.
Rebels from the main insurgent group have held Monrovia's port and surrounding districts roughly since July 19, cutting off aid and food to refugees and civilians on the government-held side of the city. Port warehouses have been pillaged, including at least three depots of the U.N. World Food Program that had 10,000 tons of aid.
McAskie said she hoped several tons of corn meal remained in storage containers at the port. U.N. workers are also ready to fly in cooking oil and lentils from neighboring Sierra Leone, she said, but more peacekeepers are needed beyond the current vanguard force of about 800 Nigerian soldiers.
"There are definitely not enough peacekeepers on the ground," she said while praising the initial deployment of a force meant to grow to 3,250 soldiers as an "important symbolic presence."
On Tuesday, government fighters had fired over the heads of hundreds of civilians massed at one of the bridges leading to the port, demanding to be allowed to cross in search of food.
"Everybody's hungry. If we don't die from gunfire we'll die of hunger," said a former university instructor Sylvester Lumeh, 35. "We have to take a chance."
Rebel official Sekou Fofana confirmed rebels would withdraw from the port, telling reporters, "We did not come and seize the port for any reason except security reasons. There is no reason to remain ourselves at the free port after Taylor has left."
Okonkwo, the West African peace force commander, said the government side also needed to withdraw its militias from the city under Tuesday's accord. But it remained unclear whether that meant regular Liberian forces as well as militias.
The agreement also pins the still-forming multinational force to a timetable, forcing it to speed up deployment throughout the city.
West African nations negotiated Taylor's exit and pledged a peace force after rebels fighting a three-year war to oust Taylor began a push into Monrovia two months ago, leaving at least 1,000 civilians dead and splitting the capital.
Taylor ceded power to his deputy, Moses Blah, Monday and went into exile in Nigeria, ending 14 years of conflict begun when Taylor, then a rebel, launched Liberia into civil war in 1989.
Since landing the first troops Aug. 4, peacekeepers have ventured only occasionally into the city from their temporary base at Liberia's main airport.
Despite international pressure to intervene, the United States has only sent about 100 Marines, including those protecting the U.S. Embassy, to Monrovia, while three U.S. warships carrying about 4,500 Marines and sailors await off Liberia's shore.
Many — including Liberians — say the United States has a historical obligation to help this nation founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves. A U.S. official said Tuesday that Marines may come ashore to provide security for aid distribution, but that no decisions have been made about expanding the American military presence here.
Two U.S. attack helicopters swept along Monrovia's coast on Wednesday, and one cargo helicopter carried a jeep beneath in a sling. Embassy officials refused comment on the helicopters' mission.
According to a State Department spokesman, the commander of U.S. Marines has been ashore in Monrovia to consult with the head of the peacekeeping force, mainly about humanitarian aid.
President Bush said he would not consider any larger deployment until Taylor was gone and a cease-fire held. He has also voiced concerns about overstretching the military, which is comitted in large numbers to Afghanistan and Iraq.