Joy as peacekeepers roll into Liberian capital

 

Hundreds of thousands ofLiberians cheered West African peacekeepers as they rumbledthrough the pockmarked capital on Thursday, in an explosion ofjoy on streets that just last week formed a deadly frontline.

People lay down in front of the peacekeepers' armouredpersonnel carriers, waved white flags and reached out to shakehands or even brush the boots of foreign soldiers many considersaviours after two weeks of bitter fighting.

Some people threw confetti made from torn-up leaves over thepeacekeepers as they made their first trip through Monroviasince arriving in Liberia on Monday.

The Nigerian soldiers blew kisses or gave 'V for victory'signs as they drove through the city, where last week mortarshells and stray bullets dealt sudden death to residents."It's beautiful, it's beautiful," said NigerianLieutenant-Colonel Amos Nudamajo.

As his war-weary people celebrated the arrivals, PresidentCharles Taylor prepared to step down, saying he would hand overpower to his vice president, Moses Blah, next Monday. He is thensupposed to go into exile, but he has set no date yet.

Taylor has come under intense US pressure to leaveLiberia, a country founded by freed American slaves in the 19thcentury. On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said heexpected Taylor to leave "in the very near future."

Peacekeepers flew to Monrovia after three rebel attacks onthe coastal capital left at least 2,000 people dead and turnedthe city into a giant refugee camp with little food and water.

The West African troops have brought new hope to a landbroken by 14 years of conflict that have destabilised the regionand created a generation of drugged-up, brutal young fighters.

"We want peace, no more war," the crowd chanted as a firstconvoy of three armoured personnel carriers and two trucksrumbled into Monrovia's outskirts on Thursday.

The guns have largely fallen silent in Monrovia since thepeacekeepers, who now number more than 450, began arriving.

However, diplomatic sources said a plane carrying ammunitionlanded at the city's airport on Wednesday and was ordered toleave by the Ecomil peacekeeping mission. It was not clear wherethe plane was from, or who ordered the ammunition.

A seven-strong US Marine team is also in Monrovia to workwith the West Africans, but the United States has yet to decideif it will commit ground troops. U.S. warships are anchored offLiberia's coast, with 2,300 Marines on board.

The peacekeepers' arrival in Liberia has paved the way forTaylor, who is wanted for war crimes by a U.N.-backed court inSierra Leone, to leave. He had previously argued he needed tostay until foreign troops arrived to prevent anarchy.

Rebels say they will not pull back from Monrovia until theirarch-enemy leaves the country.

Taylor, who has been offered asylum in Nigeria, formallytold parliament that he would hand power to Blah next Monday,saying he was the victim of an "international conspiracy".

In a letter to the assembly, he said he had decided tosacrifice his presidency after "much soul-searching andprayerful consideration." He did not mention leaving Liberia.

"You have my assurance that as a patriotic Liberian I willremain available to offer my experience, talents, counsel andresources to assist in whatever way I am called upon," he wrote.

Parliament approved Taylor's choice of Blah, a friend fromdays of guerrilla training in Libya. Blah also comes from NimbaCounty, like many of Taylor's core fighting force, and thiscould help him keep volatile young fighters in check.

The peacekeepers face a tough task restoring order to a cityteetering on the edge of a humanitarian disaster. The firsturgent cries were already ringing out on Thursday.

"I feel very good. Things are starting now," said a boycalled Momo near the peacekeepers' base. "But we are starving,no food. We want them to go to the port now."

Rebels still hold the port, meaning food is extremely scarcein government-controlled areas and prices have rocketed.

After the street party for the peacekeepers, Monrovians weresoon back on the hunt for something more substantial than hope.

Hundreds of hungry people shouting "We want eat, we want go"tried to force their way across a bridge into the rebel-heldport but they were held back by police and militia fighters.