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Famished Liberians See Aid Arriving Surely but Slowly

In Monrovia, the food deliveries are a welcome sight. But the interior remains cut off by strife.

August 17, 2003|From Associated Press

MONROVIA, Liberia — Humanitarian aid trickled into Liberia's devastated capital by plane and boat Saturday, a welcome relief but not nearly enough for residents famished after 70 days of siege. Fighting persisted in the interior, blocking hopes of immediate help for the millions trapped there.

About 500 civilians gathered to stare at the gates of the port in Monrovia where food was delivered, hoping for handouts. Thousands of others coursed across the newly opened bridge that connects famished government-held areas to the markets of the formerly rebel-held territory around the port.

"We're still starving, dying of hunger. We're hoping to work for food," said Joseph Sahn, 29. "I'm completely broke. Nothing in my pockets," he said, shaking the sides of his tattered trousers.

Rebels ceded control of the port on Thursday to West African peacekeeping troops backed by U.S. Marines, ending a siege that killed hundreds and left residents in government-held areas with little to eat but leaves and snails.

The rebels withdrew after Charles Taylor resigned as president and went into exile in Nigeria.

Relief workers are returning to the city after largely vacating Monrovia during the siege. They distributed small amounts of aid Saturday, handing out sacks of cornmeal to families at a church and elsewhere in the city.

At the airport, planes arrived with food and other aid, including a U.N. Children's Fund shipment of high-energy biscuits and milk for malnourished children, UNICEF spokeswoman Margherita Amodeo said.

Amodeo said it would be some time before aid workers could travel out of Monrovia to reach 1 million to 2 million needy in Liberia's interior, where fighting continues between rebels and government troops.

"We can only reach a small part of the population, and in this area, the needs are very high," Amodeo said.

"We need to bring in as much as possible."

Two U.N. planes also unloaded about 110 Nigerian peacekeepers. Nearly 1,000 members of a planned 3,250-strong West African peacekeeping force have been deployed.

About 200 U.S. Marines are billeted at the airport to back up the force if necessary.

On Saturday, rebel and government forces battled near Gbarnga in central Liberia and in the northern and eastern borderlands with Guinea and Ivory Coast, said Liberian commander Gen. Benjamin Yeaten.

Guns have been largely silent in Monrovia since the Nigerian peacekeepers arrived in the city more than a week ago, and negotiators pushed for a final peace deal in Accra, Ghana.

A few U.S. Marines patrolled the port on Saturday while U.S. military helicopters buzzed overhead.

"We've received nothing but a positive reaction," said Capt. Michael Charney of Elmhurst, Ill., one of those patrolling. "People smile and wave and yell, 'Hi, Marine!' "

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