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Liberians Welcome Nigerian Troops

August 08, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — Blowing kisses and waving white handkerchiefs, West African peacekeepers made their first advance into Liberia's capital on Thursday, raising hopes that a corridor for food and fuel would soon be reopened from the rebel-held port.

Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets as the small convoy of three armored personnel carriers, a truck and a couple of SUVs snaked through the center of town. Some civilians ran alongside the vehicles, jumping up to punch fists and slap hands with the 100 or so smiling Nigerian troops. Others crammed the sidewalks and gutters, singing and dancing.

"Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. I'm so glad these peacekeepers are here," said Stephen Gbadee, a newspaper vendor who ran into the street waving his merchandise over his head. He joined other revelers in temporarily blocking the flow of traffic. "There is no food. We have been starving. Thank God they are here."

The celebrations came as President Charles Taylor announced in a letter to Liberia's Congress that he would cede power Monday to his vice president, Moses Blah.

Lawmakers approved the decision, which some here hoped would be a significant step toward ending Liberia's 14-year civil war. But other residents feared that the selection of Blah, a mechanic who received Libyan military training, might reignite the conflict.

Rebel leaders have said that they would not accept any members of Taylor's regime as rulers.

"He will never take over," said rebel commander Maj. Gen. Abdulla Seyeah Sheriff. "I'll fight him."

Blah, 56, was arrested last month on charges of conspiring with Americans to overthrow Taylor. The charges were apparently dropped.

Taylor, who has accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria, is still to announce when he will actually leave the country. That is another key condition that rebels have set for a cease-fire.

In his letter to Congress, Taylor, himself a onetime guerrilla fighter, accused the international community of conspiring against his government by lending support to rebel factions based in neighboring countries, and imposing embargoes against Liberia.

"This orchestration has prevented me from carrying out my constitutional responsibilities of defending the country and providing essential social services for the people," he said. "Therefore I, as president of this noble republic, can no longer preside over the suffering and humiliation of the Liberian public."

Taylor is also fighting an indictment for war crimes by a tribunal in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Thursday that Taylor should still face the war crimes charges, even if he steps down from the presidency and leaves Liberia.

Many of the Nigerian soldiers who entered the city on Thursday as the vanguard of a West African peacekeeping force said that they would now take on the responsibility of easing the plight of Liberians.

Liberians need food, water and medical care, all of which have been desperately lacking since the rebels tightened their stranglehold on the capital in the past eight weeks of fighting. An estimated 1,000 people have died in the battles.

Fresh security concerns were raised Thursday after peacekeepers intercepted a shipment of arms at Monrovia's main airport. Details remained unclear.

But inspired by four days of relative calm and eager to lay their hands on rice, the country's staple, residents gingerly ventured out of the overcrowded hovels where they have been sheltering.

But neither of the warring factions has been willing to allow civilians to start crossing front-line bridges that divide the town, dampening optimism that the conflict is ending.

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Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

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