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Officials Enter Rebel Territory in Liberia for Talks About Aid

A delegation of Americans and West Africans asks fighters to let food in. The trip allows a grim look at the war's results.

August 06, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — Amid a shaky truce Tuesday between government and rebel forces in this war-torn nation, U.S. and West African officials ventured into guerrilla territory to urge insurgents to open the port and help feed this starved capital.

A day after peacekeepers arrived in the city to a rapturous welcome, the officials traveled in a convoy of at least a dozen cars to talk to rebels who have besieged Monrovia for two months.

The initial peacekeeping force of about 200 West African soldiers will not move from the airport to the center of town for several days. But the mere presence of the soldiers has seemingly been enough to silence the guns.

The trip into the rebel stronghold around the port allowed a glimpse of what was thought to be some of the worst fighting in Liberia's 14-year civil war.

Stopping on the government-held end of the city's so-called New Bridge, the delegation first met with senior Liberian military officials and urged them to respect a cease-fire with the rebels.

The bridge had become a killing field during repeated rebel pushes toward downtown Monrovia and the heart of government territory.

"We are happy that you people are here," Liberian commander Gen. Benjamin Yeaten told U.S. Ambassador John W. Blaney and the peacekeepers' commander, Nigerian Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo. "There will be no shooting at all."

The American ambassador helped broker the cease-fire several weeks ago, but it had largely been ignored until Tuesday. President Charles Taylor remains a major obstacle to peace. Leaders of the rebel movement Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy insist that there can be peace only after Taylor leaves the country.

Bowing to pressure from the international community, Taylor has agreed to resign Monday. He appears reluctant to keep his promise to go into exile in Nigeria, saying he would leave only when enough peacekeepers have arrived and when an international war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone drops its indictment of him.

"As long as he doesn't leave, we will keep fighting," said the rebel chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Abdulla Seyeah Sheriff, as he stood outside his makeshift headquarters at the port's Cape Maritime Shipping Agency.

Trucks crammed with government militias carrying machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers escorted the convoy to the New Bridge, which was littered with the casings of spent bullets.

On the other side, shattered windows and pockmarked, crumbling buildings bore the scars of weeks of shelling and machine-gun fire.

The stench of death filled the smoky air as five stiff and bloated bodies -- their hands tied behind their backs -- lay strewn on the sidewalk among empty sacks of looted flour, tin cans and cardboard boxes. A headless skeleton lay in a pool of sewage in the street.

Some of the corpses were those of rebel fighters who had been caught looting, one rebel soldier said. Pillaging has been rampant on both sides, according to relief workers.

During the day, several rebels darted across the contested bridge to hug and shake hands with government fighters. Many rebels said they were eager to lay down their arms.

"We only want peace," said insurgent Winston Busther, 42, who goes by the nickname "Captain Snake" for his ability to slither past the enemy. "The suffering has been too much."

But as the entourage shuttled across the bridge, many rebels couldn't resist shouting slurs about Taylor and his supporters.

Excited by the sight of the convoy, people streamed into the street, waving their arms and chanting: "No more war! We want peace!" -- a mantra that has facetiously become known as Liberia's new national anthem.

One woman cheerfully gyrated as she held her baby high above her head. A man fell to his knees and kissed the ground.

More than 1,000 civilians have been killed in the recent fighting, and few in this city swollen with refugees from around the country have had access to adequate food, clean water and proper medical care. Prices have skyrocketed, with a cup of rice -- normally less than 5 cents -- selling for about $1. The cost of gasoline has hit $30 a gallon.

Containers of produce have been plundered or held up at the port, which the rebel leaders said Tuesday they would hand over only to the West African peacekeepers.

"It's open, except to our enemies," said Sheriff, the rebel commander. "Any relief organization can come in. We will provide them security to feed the Liberian people."

Meanwhile, a Defense Department official who requested anonymity said Tuesday evening that a U.S. military liaison team of between six and 10 was preparing for "imminent" arrival in Monrovia. The team, on board Navy warships off the Liberian coast, could grow to as many as 20, the official said. It will provide West African peacekeepers with logistical support.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested again that President Bush wasn't about to send troops to Liberia in the near future, as many Liberians have asked.

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