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Liberian Rebels Vow to Leave Port

Move would allow the distribution of food to famished residents. Meanwhile, a second insurgent group heads toward the capital.

August 13, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — Rebel forces, who have besieged this capital for two months, pledged Tuesday to withdraw from the port and allow food to flow to hundreds of thousands of famished residents on the government side of the city.

The agreement came a day after former Liberian President Charles Taylor gave up power to his vice president and left for exile in Nigeria, bringing hope to war-weary civilians that years of brutal conflict would end.

But elation over the prospect of much-needed supplies was tempered by reports of a new advance by the country's second-largest rebel group.

In a signed declaration, rebels of the main insurgent group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, promised to hand over the port to peacekeepers Thursday.

"For reasons of humanity, we are handing over the port," rebel commander Sekou Fofana told reporters after meeting at his dockside headquarters with a delegation of senior American and West African military officials and diplomats. Rebels have held the port since July 19.

He added that he expected government forces to also stand down. "We have been assured by the head of the international peacekeepers that Taylor's remnants will have to leave the center of Monrovia," Fofana said.

The delegation that met with him included Nigerian Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, commander of the West African peacekeeping force that arrived in Monrovia last week; U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Thomas Turner, commander of a U.S. military joint task force positioned off Liberia's coast; and U.S. Ambassador John W. Blaney. Twenty-one Marines stood guard.

Blaney, who helped broker the deal with the rebels to end hostilities and allow access to the port, said the initiative would "allow for the creation of an inter-positional force between the government and LURD."

He added that the participation of U.S. troops in that force was yet to be determined, but "the United States is here in full support of ECOMIL," the Economic Community of West Africa's Mission in Liberia.

Fofana said he had pushed for the deployment of U.S. Marines on three vessels offshore.

"We told them that they did not come here to mind fish in the water, they came here to bring peace to the Liberian people," Fofana said.

More than 1,000 civilians have been killed in the last two months, as the rebels launched their assault on the capital.

Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea said he was not impressed by LURD's declaration because the rebels should not have violated a June cease-fire and captured the port.

"They are not doing anybody a favor," Chea said. "This is something that should have happened a month ago. The Liberian people should not have been subjected to this [suffering] and denied food like this."

Chea said government forces would withdraw from two hotly contested bridges in Monrovia that have marked the front line.

It did not take long for news of the port's possible opening to filter throughout this desperate city. In the government-held part of the capital, once flourishing markets have been reduced to selling little more than potato greens and chili peppers. The price of rice, Liberia's staple, has soared out of reach of most residents, at $2 a cup. Gasoline, when available, is $30 a gallon. A lack of sanitary conditions -- the city has no running water -- has led to a rise in disease.

Supplies are plentiful in rebel-held territory, but residents have been prevented from crossing from government-controlled areas to buy them.

"When the port opens I will be happy, because we are running out of food," said Maurice Karnuah, 43, a waiter, explaining that his household of six was down to just 10 cups of rice. "We will also be able to move freely."

Aid organizations also welcomed the possibility of the port's opening.

"If it holds, it will make an enormous difference, not only in terms of the fact that food will be able to be delivered and distributed, but also for the [aid] agencies working on the ground," said Karen Goodman-Jones, acting country director for the international relief group Merlin. "It will mean that fuel is available, and fuel is crucial to keeping our operations going."

Resources may initially prove scarce. Witnesses reported that on Tuesday morning armed men loaded trucks with hundreds of sacks of cornmeal and split peas, stolen from containers and warehouses at the port. Rebel officials said they distribute such booty in areas they control.

Soggy, broken cardboard boxes and empty grain bags lay strewn across the dock as the American and West African delegation toured the port.

Spirits were further dampened by reports that the rebel Movement for Democracy in Liberia, or MODEL, had started to advance within miles of Monrovia's airport, causing another wave of civilians to flee.

Carrying mattresses, bags and buckets atop their heads, streams of refugees shuffled along the roadside to the airport to seek safety at the side of the West African peacekeepers, who have made their base there.

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