First team of US marines enters Liberian chaos

 

LIBERIA: A team of seven US Marines flew into Monrovia yesterday, increasing American involvement in the unfurling West African peace mission, writes Declan Walsh in Monrovia.

Three helicopters swept into the heavily fortified US embassy from warships stationed 100 miles offshore, where 2,300 troops are awaiting further orders.

The marines continued to the city airport for talks with Brig Gen Festus Okonkwo, the Nigerian commander of a West African peacekeeping mission that started arriving on Monday.

But the US cautioned that the mission should not be seen as the vanguard of a larger force.

President Bush is still hesitating over deploying his troops for potentially perilous onshore peacekeeping duty, stressing instead their support role - mainly in communications and logistics - to the African mission.

"There are certain things we cannot provide you with," one American could be heard telling his Nigerian counterparts.

As the helicopters landed excited Liberian children craned their necks towards the sky, but their parents were growing impatient with repeated promises of American help.

"We feel downhearted because we love the Americans. But they are dragging their feet," said Aloysius Jetto, a refugee standing opposite the embassy entrance.

Three days into the West African mission - which should swell to 3,250 troops by the end of the month - Monrovia's dire humanitarian situation has scarcely improved.

Mortars and gunfire no longer rained down on crowded neighbourhoods, but rebel occupation of the port area has cut off food and humanitarian supplies.

The situation is most serious behind government lines, where over one million people are pinned between the rebel guns and the Atlantic Ocean.

In the street market that lines the US embassy walls, traders sold peppers, snails, small lumps of raw meat and cassava leaves.

Few could afford to eat in a makeshift restaurant under plastic sheeting, even the cooks.

"When I eat I don't get full," said Decontree Tarpeh, a young mother who cooks thick maize porridge but eats only once a day.

On the city's bridges, the scene of fierce fighting until a few days ago, government troops crossed the frontline to swap sacks of clothes for rice with their rebel enemies.

"My people, they need something to eat," said a government militia fighter who gave his name as Steve Biko.

And behind rebel lines, soldiers broke into shipping containers and handed out thousands of bags of free rice.

"They gave me two persons' share because I helped them carry," said Prince Maxwell, a 22-year-old university student.

Over 500 Nigerian soldiers had deployed to Liberia yesterday but remained camped at the airport, a 45-minute drive from Monrovia.

However Brig Gen Okonkwo said he expected to start deploying in government controlled sections of the city today.

Their first task will be to tackle the humanitarian crisis. The US Ambassador, Mr John Blaney, has tried to persuade the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels to allow access to the port.

But the rebels have sent out confusing signals. Some commanders say they will withdraw once peacekeepers arrive; others say that President Charles Taylor must leave the country first.

Mr Taylor has promised to leave office next Monday but hedged on whether he would go into exile in Nigeria immediately. He fears prosecution abroad under war crimes charges being brought against him by the Special Court in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Two days ago Liberia asked the UN World Court, a judicial body that settles disputes between nations, to drop the charges on the basis of presidential immunity.