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marinemom
08-14-03, 06:40 AM
U.S. Marines Fly Into War-Ruined Liberian Capital

Updated 6:06 AM ET August 14, 2003


By David Clarke

MONROVIA (Reuters) - U.S. Marines landed aboard nine helicopters in Liberia's capital on Thursday to help West African peacekeepers take over security in the hungry and battle-worn city.

President Moses Blah flew off to Ghana for a meeting with officials of rebel factions to try to bring an end to nearly 14 years of strife now that pariah leader Charles Taylor has flown into exile.

Shooting erupted early on Thursday around one of the key bridges where recent fighting that left 2,000 dead had been concentrated. Rebels called it an attack, but the government said it was just looters.

Rebels also started withdrawing their ragtag young fighters from other bridges into the heart of the city. Loyalist commanders said they would also pull back from their side.

"We are prepared to leave now but if they attack us, we will attack back," said rebel General Small Dennis.

Rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) are due to withdraw from the capital's port on Thursday and then pull back beyond the city limits. They will hand over to West African peacekeepers.

The U.S. Marines who flew into Monrovia's airport are part of a 2,300-strong task force floating offshore to back up the peacekeepers. U.S. Ambassador George Blaney said the first priority was to reopen the port, vital for bringing in aid supplies.

"We're going to get that free port open and get that assistance for hundreds of thousands of people who are suffering," he told CNN at the airport.

The Pentagon said on Wednesday that about 200 Marines would be deployed over the next few days. Some Marines dashed to airport buildings, others took up positions on the tarmac and in the grass.

HAPPY TO SEE MARINES

"The citizens around are all so happy to see the Marines because they had to leave their homes for fear of a rebel attack," said airport worker George Marshall.

One of the Marines said simply "I'm hot."

More Nigerian peacekeepers are also expected on Thursday, so that those already in town can take control of the port.

Reopening the port will allow aid workers to ship in aid to people who have been surviving on little food and water since the rebels attacked again last month.

Liberians would dearly love to have a big American force on the ground.

But Washington, with heavy commitments elsewhere and mindful of the bloody debacle its forces suffered in Somalia a decade ago, is reluctant to get sucked into another potential African mire.

Fresh fighting south of Monrovia has already shown that getting rid of Taylor, indicted by a U.N.-backed court for his role in a savage conflict in Sierra Leone, would not be a guarantee of peace. Taylor is in exile in Nigeria.

Blaney said that the rebel faction south of the capital had now agreed not to advance any further after capturing an important bridge.

"Now they have achieved their number one objective of removing Charles Taylor," Blaney said.

Blah, Taylor's former deputy, has already offered the rebels the post of vice-president as an olive branch and was expected to hold direct talks with rebel officials in Ghana on Thursday.

The rebels are wary of Blah who is an old Taylor ally from years of bush war before the ex-president won elections in 1997. They have said that October is too long for him to remain in power.

"They have a right to their claims and the government has a right to its claims," said Foreign Minister Lewis Brown, waiting for Blah at the airport to leave for Accra.