Cheers For Liberia Peacekeepers

Nigerian peacekeeping troops march down the runway at Robertsfield airport near the Liberian capital Monrovia, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2003.
AP
West African peacekeeping forces drove into Liberia's rebel-besieged, famished capital on Thursday to deafening cheers from the city's people.

The triumphant arrival marked a step toward ending two months of bloody warfare in Monrovia that has killed at least 1,000 people, but it came as Liberia's political scene saw a step backward: President Charles Taylor's canceled his announcement of his successor, yet another delay in his much-anticipated resignation.

Blowing kisses and waving white handkerchiefs, the more than 100 Nigerian troops traveled 30 miles from their airport base into Monrovia in white armored personnel carriers, trucks and sports utility vehicles.

It was not clear when the Nigerian peacekeepers would begin patrolling the streets of Monrovia, but, as CBS News reports, their very presence has brought new hope to a land broken by 14 years of war.

Thousands of Liberians crammed the shoulders of the roads along the way, chanting, "We want peace, no more war."

"I'm going with them," said Prince Phillip, one young man running alongside the convoy. "We need to eat, we're tired of this war."

"There is going to be a big change, it is going to be a great thing for Liberia and I see (it as) prosperity and a blessing on Liberia," onlooker Mayvne Pyne told CBS News.

The city's desperate people clamored for rescue from peacekeepers, meant to come between the warring parties and open up humanitarian corridors from the rebel-held port, allowing food and aid to flow into Monrovia.

Peacekeepers also are to oversee Taylor's departure from the country into exile in Nigeria.

Under international pressure, the president has pledged repeatedly to resign only to hedge or renege on his promises. His cancellation Thursday of a speech to Congress raised further questions about whether he would step down on Monday, as he has agreed to.

His spokesman, Vaanii Passawe told The Associated Press before the meeting's cancellation that Taylor would stick to the plan, which foresees him going into exile in Nigeria soon after he resigns.

"We are on course on the president relinquishing power," he said.

After Taylor's cancellation, Congress called off its own meeting in which it had planned to discuss and formally approve the president's resignation.

Without a formal statement from Taylor, lawmakers cannot approve a transition of power, said House Speaker Nyundueh Monkomana, a candidate for replacing the president along with Vice President Moses Blah.

Taylor, a Libyan-trained ex-guerrilla fighter blamed for much of the bloody strife that has embroiled Liberia for almost 14 years, has been reduced to a last redoubt in central Monrovia as rebels press their siege of the city.

Fighting has split Monrovia into rebel and government sides, killed well over 1,000 civilians outright and left hunger and epidemics raging among the 1.3 million residents and refugees.

The Nigerians who entered the capital are the vanguard of a West African force envisioned in an oft-violated June 17 cease-fire agreement signed between Taylor's government and rebels battling since 1999 to oust him. The force has been repeatedly delayed.

West African leaders have promised an eventual 3,250-strong peace force in Liberia. Nearly 500 Nigerian soldiers with five armored vehicles have arrived at the airport outside Monrovia.

The United States is under pressure to take the lead on helping to restore peace in Liberia — a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century — but Washington insists that American involvement will be limited.

On Wednesday, helicopters brought the first seven U.S. Marines to support the steadily building West African peace force in Monrovia.

The Marines flew from a three-ship U.S. Navy group carrying 2,000 Marines and 2,500 sailors off Liberia to coordinate U.S. logistical support for the West African soldiers.

No Marines could be seen among the West African peacekeepers making their initial foray into the capital.

Army Lt. Col. Dan Stoneking said Thursday the U.S. supports the West African peacekeepers as they continue to try to improve conditions for the Liberian people.

The arrival of the peacekeepers in the capital means humanitarian supplies could start flowing more quickly from the airport into the urban areas where people are desperate for food and medicine.

President Bush has said no larger American force will go ashore until Taylor leaves the country. "We would like Taylor out," Mr. Bush said Wednesday in Crawford, Texas.

Taylor has hedged on when he would take up an offer of asylum in Nigeria — setting new conditions for his departure in recent days. His government has said he would leave only after enough foreign peacekeepers are on the ground and if a war crimes indictment against him is dropped.

Nigerian officials told The Associated Press that the Liberian leader had indicated he hoped to leave around Aug. 16 or 17. But South African President Thabo Mbeki said Taylor assured him he would leave within 24 hours of handing over power Monday.

Nigerian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they and others were trying to speed Taylor's exit. Nigeria said in a statement from President Olusegun Obasanjo's office that it was "finalizing arrangements" for Taylor's departure.

Jacques Paul Klein, the top U.N. envoy for Liberia, urged Taylor to leave before he is arrested. A U.N.-backed court has indicted Taylor on war crimes charges for allegedly supporting rebels during a brutal decade-long war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

"The warrant never goes away, and the court will be there for a number of years," he advised Taylor. "So go while the getting is good."

Overnight, a plane carrying an arms shipment landed at the government-held airport 30 miles outside of Monrovia, workers contacted there by telephone said on condition of anonymity.

The United Nations in March 2001 imposed an arms embargo on Liberia to punish Taylor for trading weapons for diamonds from rebels in Sierra Leone.

The workers said peacekeepers impounded the war materiel after an argument with Liberian military officials. But peace force leaders said they had no knowledge of any arms shipment, as did Paasawe, the Taylor spokesman.