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CONFLICT IN LIBERIA

Troops Arrive to Keep Peace in Liberia

Nigerians helicopter into Monrovia's airport, the first contingent of a mission expected to hasten the departure of President Taylor.

August 05, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — Leaping from white U.N. helicopters into a torrential rain, heavily armed Nigerian peacekeepers arrived in Liberia on Monday, ending weeks of uncertainty over an international rescue mission and bringing hope to desperate civilians.

As the peacekeepers, dressed in camouflage and flak jackets, fanned out across the tarmac of Monrovia's Robertsfield airport and crouched in defensive positions, a crowd of jubilant people overwhelmed security to welcome them. They shouted what has become a common slogan in war-weary Liberia: "No more war! We want peace!"

"I am very happy with the arrival of the peacekeepers because this will ease the tension and bring some relief to us Liberians," said one of those who came to the airport, 33-year-old Eric Kanwie. "We are in very desperate need of them."

While fighting continued in Monrovia, the peacekeepers remained at the airport, awaiting equipment. Both the government and rebels said they welcomed their arrival. More than 1,000 civilians have been killed in two months of fighting, which has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee the suburbs into Monrovia and has caused critical shortages of food and water. Disease is rampant.

It was unclear when the soldiers would head into the heart of Monrovia, about 30 miles away. At least one armored personnel carrier with mounted machine guns was flown in with the Nigerian troops, but military officials said peacekeepers would not begin their mission until artillery arrived.

The 198 soldiers who arrived Monday were the first contingent of a force that is expected to grow to as many as 15,000 troops. Their arrival is to pave the way for the departure of President Charles Taylor and to help end Liberia's 14-year civil war. Taylor has pledged to step down next Monday.

Along the road between the airport and the capital was a grim reminder of the war's toll. As the peacekeepers' helicopters droned in the distance, gravediggers tossed 66 corpses -- some partially clothed, some naked -- into a hurriedly dug mass grave. The majority of the dead were victims of the fighting whose remains had been left unclaimed in the morgue at Monrovia's main hospital.

As the mangled bodies were being unloaded from the belly of a large truck, residents stood pensively at the curb.

Mamie Queayker collapsed when she spotted the body of her 26-year-old husband, Henry Dubor. Friends quickly carried her from the grave site.

"I wanted to take his body to the funeral home," said the 25-year-old widow, her voice breaking as she slumped onto a nearby grassy knoll after coming to. "But now.... "

At the United Nations, Hedi Annabi, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, said that 850 troops should be deployed by Aug. 17.

Officials also have begun planning for the deployment of a larger force by Oct. 1. Annabi said the operation would be "sizable" and that it could include as many as 15,000 troops. But he said it was too early to give an exact number of troops or say if they could actually be deployed by Oct. 1.

The Bush administration has ordered three warships with Marines to stand ready in the Atlantic Ocean for deployment. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has urged the United States to commit troops to the peacekeeping mission in Liberia, which was founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.

A senior U.S. official in Washington said Monday that U.S. troops were off the Liberian coast and ready to help with logistics and communications, and that some would probably go ashore.

U.S. Ambassador John Blaney, who was among American, Liberian and Nigerian officials at the airport, said the arrival of the Nigerians was "very significant."

"This is a very positive step forward in terms of re-stabilizing Liberia," Blaney said.

The White House has said that any deployment of U.S. troops would be contingent upon Taylor leaving his country.

The Liberian president, who has been indicted by an international war crimes tribunal for supporting insurgents in neighboring Sierra Leone, previously accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria, but questions remain as to whether he actually will relinquish power and leave.

Nigerian Foreign Minister Oluyemi Adeniji flew to Monrovia on Monday to meet with Taylor. Associated Press quoted Nigerian officials as saying that Taylor assured them he would start preparing to leave Liberia as soon as he gives up power.

Taylor's aides have said that he will seek to prove his innocence on the war crimes charges, but that he was not willing to defend himself in front of an international tribunal because he did not feel he could get a fair trial.

In Rome, Sekou Conneh, leader of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, promised to cooperate with the peacekeepers.

"They should be able to provide security for civilians, then we can withdraw," Conneh, who was in Rome for talks with international mediators, said in a telephone interview.

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