Excited children on Monrovia's Atlantic beaches waved at the three helicopters as they swept in from ships far off shore and disappeared behind the U.S. Embassy's high walls.
Minutes later, the Marines rolled out and sped away to meet with West African military officials at their temporary base at Liberia's main airport. At least three members of a U.S. government humanitarian team also were on the flights.
The U.S. team arrived as Nigerian troops at the airport — the vanguard of a West African peacekeeping force — prepared to enter the capital for the first time. U.S. officials have said the Marines will work only as liaisons between the West African force and U.S. commanders on the three American warships off Liberia.
"(Mr. Bush) has from the beginning said that any role for the U.S. would be to assist (African troops), not to replace them," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday.
Authorized by President Bush on Tuesday, the team could grow as large as 20 in coming days but is not the beginning of a larger deployment, said a senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Monrovia's trapped people have appealed for U.S. intervention throughout two bloody months of rebel sieges of the capital — pleading for rescue from the country that oversaw Liberia's 19th-century founding by freed American slaves.
"We feel happy because we're tired of what is happening. We expect them to bring peace for us," said Andrew Sarte, a 32-year old refugee, among the crowds on the beach.
The USS Iwo Jima amphibious assault ship and USS Carter Hall amphibious landing dock were within 100 miles of Liberia, and the amphibious transport dock USS Nashville was moving to join them. U.S. officials have spoken of the ships moving into sight of Monrovia at some point — in an intended show of force for combatants and residents.
Rebels have besieged the capital for months with the goal of ousting President Charles Taylor, a former warlord blamed in 14 years of conflict in once-prosperous Liberia and indicted for war crimes in nearby Sierra Leone. The fighting in Monrovia has killed well over 1,000 civilians.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and residents in government-held parts of Monrovia are desperate for food, and West African and U.S. diplomats have been working — with no word of success — to negotiate access routes to the rebel-held port area, where warehouses stocked with food are located.
Nigerian Lt. Col. Sam Nudamajo said he expected to send the first troops from his force into the city later Wednesday, to head toward the port. Nigerian forces, which began arriving three day ago, were building to battalion strength of 770-men.
On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador John Blaney joined West African officials in a convoy to the rebel-held side, appealing to rebel commanders to open up humanitarian access to the port.
Rebel chief of staff Maj. Gen. Abdulla Seyeah Sheriff told reporters Wednesday that would happen only when Taylor resigns and leaves Liberia. "We will hold our positions," until then, said Sheriff.
Earlier, Taylor's military chief of staff, Gen. Benjamin Yeaten, warned that if rebels fail to withdraw from the port it could "tempt me" to break the cease-fire.
Mr. Bush and West African leaders have demanded that Taylor cede power and leave Liberia, taking an asylum offer in Nigeria. Taylor has pledged to leave office Monday, but his government says he will leave the country only when an adequate number of peacekeepers are on the ground — and a U.N.-Sierra Leone war-crimes indictment against him is dropped.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., tells CBS Radio he is pleased U.S. troops have finally entered Liberia.
"I would have hoped that it would have been more but the fact of the matter is a small start is better than no start," he said, adding that "a mere presence" of U.S. troops will make a difference. He says all Liberian factions "respect US troops."
According to a Pentagon fact sheet, there were already as many as nine U.S. servicemembers — eight of them Marines — in Liberia as of December, probably as part of the security detail stationed at all U.S. Embassies.
The seven-man team that deployed Monday is far from the smallest U.S. military presence overseas. According to Pentagon statistics, smaller U.S. military contingents were on the ground in 27 countries as of December 2002. These included six Marines in Malta, five sailors in Gibraltar, two airmen in Antigua and a lone Army soldier in Belize.