U.S.'s Liberia Presence Capped

Nigerian peacekeeping troops march down the runway at Robertsfield airport near the Liberian capital Monrovia, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2003.
AP
Helicopters swooped in with the first seven U.S. troops to support a West African peace force in this rebel-besieged capital, as Liberia's president bowed to mounting international pressure and prepared to announce a successor.

The Marines, in camouflage and armed with automatic weapons, flew in Wednesday from a three-ship Navy group carrying 2,000 Marines and 2,500 sailors off Liberia to coordinate U.S. logistical support for the West African soldiers at the airport 30 miles outside the capital.

The troops are in Liberia only to provide logistical and communications assistance, and to help the West Africans plan their peacekeeping, administration officials say. They will likely not number more than 20.

President Bush said no larger American force will go ashore until Liberian President Charles Taylor leaves the country.

"We would like Taylor out," Bush said during his vacation in Crawford, Texas.

Long-awaited West African peacekeeping forces arrived in Liberia's rebel-besieged, famished capital on Thursday to deafening cheers from the city's desperate people.

Traveling from their base at an airport 30 miles from Monrovia, more than a hundred Nigerian peacekeepers rode into the war-ruined city in white armored personnel carriers, trucks and sports utility vehicles.

The soldiers blew kisses and waved white handkerchiefs at thousands of Liberians crammed on the shoulders of roads, chanting, "We want peace, no more war."

Taylor was to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday to officially declare his intention to resign and announce a successor. He has said the choice is between Vice President Moses Blah and House Speaker Nyundueh Monkomana — Nos. 2 and 3 in the line of succession.

However, Taylor has repeatedly 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 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. So go while the getting is good," he advised Taylor.

Taylor, a Libyan-trained ex-guerrilla fighter blamed for much of Liberia's 14-years of strife, has been reduced to a last redoubt in central Monrovia as rebels press two months of siege of his capital.

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.

Thousands of civilians poured out of the rebel-held port Wednesday carrying bags of rice on their heads. Rebels had commandeered shipping containers there and were doling out rice free of charge, civilians said.

On the government side, depleted market stalls offered little more than potato greens and chili peppers. Rice, the staple, was nowhere to be found.

The U.S. helicopters, appearing Wednesday out of overcast skies over the gray Atlantic, stirred little notice. A few dozen children on the rocky beach waved and pointed. The contingent landed at the U.S. Embassy and immediately drove out to visit with West Africans at the airport.

It was good, many Liberians said — but not good enough.

"It's too slow and too little," said Thomas Koko, a hotel laundry worker. "People are starving. We can't even see our families on the other side.

"We need peacekeepers in the port, in our city — now."

Rebels have told the West African force they are willing to handover the port, put only to peacekeepers — not Liberia's government.

The United Nations, European and African countries and Liberians themselves have pressed the United States to take the lead on helping to restore peace in Liberia — a nation founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century.

Bush has stressed that West Africans and the United Nations must take the lead, and that American involvement will be limited.

The United States secured U.N. authorization of the multinational force last week, to be followed within months by a U.N. force.