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The World

Liberians Exult as U.S. Marines Come Ashore

A contingent of about 200 arrives to help peacekeepers from West Africa. Officials warn that disarming the rebels will take time.

August 15, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — U.S. helicopters beat through the sky and Harrier jets roared over cheering crowds Thursday, heralding the arrival of American troops in this shellshocked capital.

By midafternoon, more than 200 Marines were creating checkpoints, opening bridges, preparing to repair the seaport and running off rebel fighters in the first American military intervention in Africa since 1992.

"We have been waiting and waiting for the Americans to come," James L. Porter Sr., a Liberian airplane mechanic, said as he watched nine U.S. helicopters land at Roberts International Airport on Thursday morning. Troops leaped from the aircraft and crouched in their ready positions.

"Now that they are here, we are all joy and happiness," he said.

But for many Liberians, the joy was tempered by the belief that it took too long for the troops to come ashore.

"We are happy to see the Marines coming to our country. The only problem we have is that they came very late," said George Sarba, 45, an exporter before all of his possessions were looted. "And the LURD [rebel group], they need to be disarmed right now, so we can be a gun-free society."

In recent months, Liberians have called on the U.S. to send troops to this country founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century. But Washington has insisted on playing a minimal role, supplying funds and acting in support of West African peacekeepers.

Troops from the Economic Community of West Africa's Mission in Liberia, or ECOMIL, also received a joyous welcome as they moved through the capital's northern district, Bushrod Island.

Fighters with the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, continued to roam through Bushrod Island in over-packed cars, firing AK-47s skyward. They had promised to leave the area by noon so that peacekeepers would have an easy transition. Their failure to leave angered U.S. military officials.

As the deadline approached, Lt. Sue Ann Sandusky, the military attache at the American Embassy in Monrovia, confronted Sekou Fofana, LURD's top civilian official, at the New Bridge between the city core and the LURD-held sector. Rebel fighters were still flaunting rocket-propelled grenades along Monrovia's Freeport Street industrial strip, and LURD's leader, Maj. Gen. Abdulla Seyeah Sheriff, was late for the hand-over ceremony with U.S. Ambassador John W. Blaney.

Sandusky told Fofana that the situation was an unacceptable breach of LURD's agreement and, thrusting a finger into his chest, she warned: "You are going to go before a war tribunal. You have 20 minutes to get it together."

An apparently chastened Fofana told a reporter that LURD "was leaving gradually, we are not refusing."

Shortly thereafter, Sheriff walked to the center of the bridge to announce LURD's withdrawal.

Privately, U.S. and ECOMIL officials said they were satisfied with the progress that had taken place but that disarming LURD fighters, many of whom are untrained teenagers, would take time.

"LURD is not the most organized bunch of people we've ever seen," one embassy official said. "But we now have the port, which is key for humanitarian aid and other resources. We're making progress."

About 80 Marines fenced off a portion of the port with razor wire and pitched their tents there in anticipation of the arrival of military engineers who would attempt to repair the facility.

Aid agencies have other challenges to think about. Many of the United Nations food warehouses have been looted. Aid officials said that until LURD and another faction, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, or MODEL, are under control, security would continue to be a problem.

ECOMIL soldiers planned to begin patrolling the streets today, but the force is still too small to establish any presence in Liberia's interior, where the humanitarian crisis is believed to be severe.

"There's also been looting and destruction of humanitarian agencies' offices," said World Vision's Dan Kelly. "So as well as responding to the crisis, we're also trying to reestablish our operations and recover records and get vehicles that have been commandeered or damaged."

U.N. officials met with ECOMIL leaders in Monrovia on Thursday night to discuss the future. American officials don't expect U.N. peacekeepers to be dispatched until the fall.

The international community had called on the U.S. to send as many as 5,000 peacekeepers. But, citing commitments around the globe, the Bush administration sent a much smaller force.

A veteran U.S. diplomat in Africa called that decision a "risky compromise" that could backfire. Princeton N. Lyman said the contingent of 200 Marines may not be enough to intimidate rival forces, and it may be difficult to get more troops ashore quickly if major fighting erupts again.

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