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Sgt Sostand
08-14-03, 01:13 PM
MONROVIA, Liberia - Government forces and rebels battled on the road outside Liberia's capital while looters ran off with sacks of grain from warehouses at the main port. Trying to help end the chaos, the United States pledged 200 troops to bolster a peacekeeping force.




The rebels have promised to withdraw from Monrovia's port and the rest of the city on Thursday following the resignation on Monday of President Charles Taylor. A cargo ship waited offshore, ready to deliver food for the besieged city's starving residents as soon as the rebels leave.

Outside the capital, clashes continued Wednesday. Government forces and fighters from Liberia's smaller rebel movement battled on the road leading from Monrovia to the southeastern port of Buchanan. West African peacekeepers and others said clashes were at least 60 miles from the capital.

Rebel representative Boi Bleaju Boi said his forces had fallen back to show that they had no intention of taking Liberia's key airport, but that government forces were attacking them. Boi spoke in Accra, Ghana, site of Liberia's sporadic peace talks.

Government representatives denied instigating the fighting, saying they hoped for the war to end after Taylor stepped down, as rebels wanted.

"For us, the war should be over by now," said Liberia's deputy defense minister, Austin Clarke.

Refugees fleeing toward the capital earlier said rebels were attacking civilians and targeting men of fighting age, raising fears that they may be seeking a share of power after Taylor's resignation.

Meanwhile, three U.S. warships carrying about 2,300 Marines floated off the coast near Monrovia, and the Pentagon said some 200 American forces would be sent in if the rebels surrender the port.

Some U.S. troops would work directly with the peacekeepers. Navy SEALS would help secure the waterway and engineers would help assess the port for delivery of humanitarian supplies, the Pentagon said.

Insurgents fighting for three years to oust Taylor have besieged the capital for two months, spurring urban mortar barrages and gun battles that have killed more than 1,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.

The fighting has split the capital into the government-held downtown and the rebel-held port, which is controlled by the larger of Liberia's two rebel groups. Government areas have been unable to get food from the port, leaving trapped civilians in Monrovia's government territory famished and eating little but leaves.

Mainly young men but also girls and the elderly joined fighters streaming out of Monrovia's port Wednesday with sacks of grain, cooking oil and other goods taken from shipping containers and international aid agency warehouses.

After hours of pillaging, rebel commanders ordered looters out of the port.

"We are totally in control of the situation," said rebel official Sekou Fofana as his troops - mostly child fighters - kicked, beat, and fired guns over the heads of throngs carting off bags of food, many marked with U.N. and World Food Program seals.

"This is for my family across the river," explained Jerry William, a civilian carrying a bag of bulgur wheat on his head.

Rebel leaders denied their men were looting.

Liberia's main rebel group has held the port since the third week of June, halted at the city's front-line bridges while government fighters hold downtown.

Rebels, intent on keeping government troops from retaking the port, have insisted that peacekeepers be in place Thursday to secure it.

West African peace troops began landing in Monrovia on Aug. 4, though only about 800 have arrived so far, most of them Nigerian. Based at the airport outside the city, they have made only brief forays into Monrovia.

A second, 776-member battalion of Nigerian forces will start deploying Thursday, Nigerian army spokesman Col. Chukwuemeka Onwuamaegbu said.

Looters briefly stopped plundering Wednesday to glance up as U.S. military helicopters whirred over the capital.

One helicopter carried vehicles in a sling, though it was unclear where it landed. U.S. Embassy officials wouldn't discuss the helicopters' mission, although they confirmed that Ambassador John Blaney had permission for the flight from Liberia's new president, Moses Blah.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Blaney said he believed Liberia's new leader to be "sincere in his desire for peace" and said the United States was committed to ensuring that the peacekeeping mission would be successful.

"America will be here and we're going to guarantee that this is going to be a success," Blaney said, declining to comment on specifics of the American role.

"We don't anticipate any problems," he said, stressing that rebels gave their word they would abandon the port and other rebel-controlled areas.

"We want to be here for the Liberian people."

As peace forces prepared to move into the capital, Liberia's government and the smaller, southern-based insurgency traded blame for Wednesday's fighting south of Monrovia.