Liberians pin last hopes on Nigerian, US troops


LIBERIA: Tears streamed down the cheeks of the small boy on a stretcher inside the hospital door. Gone were the bravado and the drugs and the big powerful weapons. In their place remained a 13-year-old child soldier, weeping from the torment of three fresh bullet wounds, writes Declan Walsh.

Rufus Tarr was a fighter with the "Jungle Fire" militia. They took part in the all-out government offensive on Monrovia's hotly contested bridges on Saturday. It failed pathetically.

The casualties streamed into the Red Cross hospital until the early hours of yesterday morning. Yet when the fighting subsided neither side had advanced an inch.

"When we ran out of ammunition the enemy came across the bridge. That's when I was shot," said Rufus, still gasping for breath.

This is the senseless violence that the force of 300 Nigerian peacekeepers landing in Liberia today is hoping to stop. After weeks of inexplicable delays and wrangling over money, west Africa's leaders are finally sending up to 3,250 troops to halt the madness of Monrovia.

The civilians caught in the crossfire are pinning their desperate last hopes on them. Tens of thousands of cheering refugees spilled on to the streets last week to hail the Nigerian-led advance party. Yesterday even government soldiers said they would be welcome. "We want the Nigerians to come and take complete control," said Emmanuel Williams of the "Executive Mansion Wild Geese" brigade, shot in both knees over the weekend.

But Liberians also know Nigeria's helping hand can take as easily as it gives.

During the last west African peacekeeping mission, Nigerian generals hocked arms for diamonds with rebel leaders. Their footsoldiers bought looted goods and shipped them home by sea.

"In Africa, the war they make is a business," continued Pte Williams. "They took ammunition to sell it to the rebels. And the suffering is with the lay man. That's why we want the international forces with us."

That help is quite literally just over the horizon. More than 2,000 US troops are waiting to be sent on Liberia duty in a three-ship fleet currently anchored off Liberia. But there was no sight of them from Monrovia yesterday.

President Bush, apparently unsure what role his troops should play, is keeping them far from shore until the African mission deploys. Meanwhile, Mr Bush's diplomatic dance with President Charles Taylor, whose departure he has demanded, continues.

Mr Taylor has erected a billboard across the road from the casualty-filled hospital. It reads: "Words can be more harmful than bullets." Like many of Mr Taylor's pronouncements the mendacious sign is hard to believe. Over the weekend he promised to leave office by next Monday. But the pledge may be just another stalling tactic from one of Africa's most cunning and ruthless leaders.

His cornered troops are trying to gain ground in advance of tomorrow's peacekeeping deployment. The battle for the bridges is a tragi-comic farce.

During lulls the fighters huddle under wooden shacks, steeling themselves with moonshine and marijuana. Then they skip out into the centre of the road, roaring insults and randomly spraying bullets towards the far side. Some perform a short jig afterwards; few actually ever aim their weapons.

By the time they leap back to shelter, thousands of stray rounds are raining down on crowded neighbourhoods over a mile away, adding to the long list of civilian casualties.

Organised attacks involve a jeep mounted with a machinegun storming across the bridge, unleashing another hose of undirected fire. Sometimes the bullets come back. Gruesome TV footage shot on Saturday shows a jeep of attackers jerking backwards as they are slain by a hail of rebel fire.

Older commanders threaten with execution or lash forward with a whip those who hesitate. Even in hospital there is no safety from the madness.

Over the weekend a government commander burst into the casualty ward brandishing a pistol. He warned terrified nurses that if an amputation was carried out on a wounded general who had just been admitted, he would "kill them all", said a hospital spokesman.

Halting the chaos will be the first job of the west African peacekeepers arriving tomorrow. Some of them know Liberia well - Nigerian troops led the earlier Ecomog mission between 1990 and 1998. Liberians have a bittersweet memory of that time.

Nigerian troops saved lives, brought some stability and created the conditions for the 1997 elections that President Taylor won. Many mixed easily with the locals - the children they fathered are known as "Ecomog babies".

But the peacekeepers were also guilty of fanning the war.

"They were rough, so harsh," said Patrick Tukuly, who lives near Nigeria House, a Nigerian diplomatic residence. "If your car stalled on the road, they would beat you unmercifully." Then again, he said, it was different this time. "We will be so happy to see them. But we need the Americans too - their presence alone will discourage anyone from fighting."