Peacekeepers Cheered In Liberia

Col. Onwuama Egbu Emeka, one of the Economic Community of West African States Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL) Nigerian peacekeeping troops, is carried aloft by a jubilant crowd crying "peace at least" across the runway at Robertsfield airport near the Liberian capital Monrovia Monday, Aug. 4, 2003.
AP
West Africa's first troops landed Monday on an international rescue mission for Liberia, greeted by overjoyed civilians who spilled onto the airfield by the hundreds, screaming, "We want peace!"

Nigerian soldiers in green camouflage and flak vests leapt from white U.N. helicopters onto the tarmac at Liberia's main airport, outside the country's besieged capital.

Machine guns at the ready, they crouched, taking up defensive positions on the landing strip.

West African leaders promise an eventual 3,250-strong deployment charged with helping end 14 years of conflict in the war-ruined country — and overseeing the departure of warlord turned-president Charles Taylor.

As an armored personnel carrier with mounted machine guns rolled off one of the later flights, scores of Liberian onlookers evaded security and ran toward the troops. "No more war. We want peace," they chanted, at one point lifting a commander, Col. Emeka Onwuama Egbu, to their shoulders.

Outside the terminal, two women danced in the rain, celebrating the arrival of the desperately hoped-for peace troops.

Even as peace troops landed, small-arms fire echoed in the neighborhoods of tin-roof shacks near Old Bridge, focus of a nearly two month attack as rebels try to push from Monrovia's port into downtown, heart of Taylor's government.

Col. Theophilus Tawiah of Ghana, the new force's chief of staff, said he knew how much Monrovia's trapped people had been waiting for the day. "And we hope to live up to their expectations," Tawiah said.

Authorities said 192 men and 33,000 pounds of equipment would deploy Monday. The West African deployment is to be followed within months by a U.N. peacekeeping force.

"We are ready. I can assure you of that," said Capt. Aliyu Jibril, commander of the first units to arrive. Jibril said the troops had a mandate that allows them to fire to protect themselves and civilians.

On Sunday, two of three U.S. warships full of Marines arrived off the country's Atlantic Ocean coast, ready if ordered to deploy to support the peacekeepers, although their exact role remained unclear. The Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship, and the Carter Hall, a dock landing ship are the two that have arrived. According to The New York Times, the Nashville, a support ship, is five days behind.

"We will have to see," if the Marines come ashore, said American Ambassador John Blaney, who was among the U.S., Liberian and Nigerian officials greeting the troops.

The United States, which oversaw Liberia's 19th-century founding by freed American slaves, has been under international pressure to intervene in the conflict. But President Bush, saying he is worried about overstretching American forces already committed to Iraq and Afghanistan, says no troops will enter until Taylor leaves.

At a news conference last week, Mr. Bush also said a cease-fire had to be in place before U.S. became involved. And he stressed that in any engagement in Liberia, "the troop strength will be limited, and the time frame will be limited."

In Monrovia, residents near the city's embattled port heard cheers and watched flares go up over the war-ruined city — rebels, celebrating the arrival of the West African troops.

"I want to see them with my own eyes. And when I do, even though I have no food, my belly will be big, and I will be happy," said Bangalu Wonwondor, a 62-year-old refugee.

West African leaders have promised the force to quell fighting in Liberia, where two months of rebel sieges on the capital have killed more than 1,000 civilians outright and left the refugee-crowded city of more than 1.3 million wracked by disease and desperately short of food and water.

The leader of the peacekeeping force for Liberia on Sunday sought to temper high expectations among the country's suffering people, saying the first troops would only secure the airport on the capital's outskirts.

Nigerian Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo said he asked both sides to return to the positions they held when they signed a June 17 cease-fire, broken repeatedly since then. He said he didn't expect peacekeepers to be attacked.

On the road to the airport, aid workers on Monday were preparing mass graves, readying them for the bodies of 70-80 people killed in fighting but left unclaimed at the morgue at Monrovia's main hospital.

Debt-strapped Nigeria, which is overseeing the deployment, says it needs far more international backing for the mission, expected eventually to cost at least $2 million daily.

U.S. officials also have promised $10 million in logistical support for the West African peacekeepers.

Taylor, a former warlord, pledged Saturday to cede power on Aug. 11 — meeting one demand by fellow African leaders and the United States.

However, his government has hedged on his promise to go into exile in Nigeria — saying he would leave the country only when enough peacekeepers are on the ground, and when a war-crimes indictment against him is dropped.

Taylor has promised to yield power since June 4, when a joint United Nations and Sierra Leone court revealed the war-crimes indictment against him for supporting rebels there.

Taylor is blamed for 14 years of conflict in Liberia that has killed more than 100,000 people, and is accused of trafficking and arming insurgents across the region.