US soldiers here to assess the nation's humanitarian needs met cheering, dancing mobs everywhere they went on Tuesday and listened to the cries of people declaring the demise of the embattled Liberian president, Charles Taylor. At one point, though, they had to turn back because a government official was upset that protocol had not been followed.
Tens of thousands of Liberians poured into the streets as the US convoy drove through town. Bare-chested boys, toothless old men and women with babies strapped to their backs ran alongside, laughing and chanting, "We want peace." The more audacious declared that their president's wings had been broken.
They all sang paeans to the US president, George W. Bush, but in the high-speed Liberian pidgin spoken here, it sounded something like "Jaw Boo," as in: "Oh, George Bush, we like you, Oh, George Bush."
At high noon, with the sun blasting over the crowd and the US convoy barely able to crawl in the crush of well-wishers in the streets, Taylor's police forces appeared from nowhere and fired into the air.
Three uniformed US soldiers stepped out of the first car, their guns aimed ahead. Taylor's forces fired into the air again and the Americans piled into their cars and sped off. More Liberian government forces arrived and chased away the crowd, one commander yelling, "Beat them."
The Liberian defense minister, Daniel Chea, said Tuesday afternoon that the crowd was fired on for the protection of the American team. The US embassy, in a statement Tuesday afternoon, called the shooting unnecessary.
For his part, Bush, on his first visit to the continent, announced Tuesday morning in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, that he had not yet made a decision about whether to send US troops to assist with peacekeeping efforts in this West African country, which has been broken by war.
The team of 32 experts on the ground Tuesday, all but one of them soldiers, was sent by the White House to gauge what embassy officials here described as the scope of the humanitarian crisis. They said they had not come to lay the groundwork for a military deployment.
The finer details of their mission seemed to be lost here. The enthusiasm on the streets Tuesday was the latest signal of how badly people in the capital want US intervention to stop the war in their country. "Oh, marine, we like you, oh!" the bare-chested boys chanted, running alongside the convoy under the hot sun.
At least one senior member of the Taylor regime was less than pleased with the Americans' cruise through the capital. The defense minister, Chea, was miffed that the assessment team had scheduled a visit to a displaced people's camp just outside the city without first paying him a courtesy call.
So, early in their outing, the convoy made a U-turn at a checkpoint across the strategic St. Paul River, manned by the feared government militia group that calls itself the Wild Geese. They came back to meet with the minister, but not before picking up a 6-year-old child who was slightly injured in the chaos on the streets.
Chea said Tuesday afternoon that the Americans were neither stopped nor assaulted at the checkpoint, but that it was an oversight on their part not to have met with him. He took pains to point out that the US assessment team was welcome here and hectored the US to intervene in Liberia.