Sat, Aug 02, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Peacekeepers arrive in war-torn Liberia

ENDING SLAUGHTER Hundreds of civilians have been killed in fighting over the last two weeks between rebels and government forces, but the killings can now stop

REUTERS , MONROVIA

Hospital workers look on as an injured man is carried in on a stretcher past Nigerian Brigadier General Festus Okonkwo, who would oversee any West African deployment of peacekeepers, at the John F. Kennedy hospital in Monrovia on Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

West African leaders approved a peacekeeping mission to Liberia and called for troops to enter the war-weary West African country by Monday, clearing the way for President Charles Taylor to go into exile.

West African ministers were due in Liberia yesterday to smooth Taylor's exit as Liberians celebrated the news that peacekeepers were poised to deploy and end two weeks of slaughter in the capital Monrovia.

After a regional summit in Ghana, Nigerian troops were finally given the green light on Thursday to head to Monrovia, a city besieged by rebels for two weeks and starved of food and water.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed by mortar bombs and stray bullets as rebels battled Taylor's troops.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is providing the peacekeepers with logistical support from the UN and US, said Taylor should honor his pledge to leave Liberia and go after troops deploy.

US officials said US warships were expected to arrive off Liberia by today, but no decision has been made on whether to put any of the 2,300 Marines aboard the vessels on the ground.

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the US already has "put up US$10 million that will go in the form of a contract for logistics support."

"Thank God there is some semblance of peace," said one Monrovia resident living behind rebel lines after news filtered through of the ECOWAS call for troops to deploy by Monday.

"Most of us are tired of war. We want a reunion with our people. Every Liberian wants to interact with his family. Even the soldiers are very happy and some have been jubilating," said the resident, who did not want to be named.

The rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) are hell-bent on booting out Taylor, a former foe in a brutal civil war which left 200,000 civilians dead in the 1990s.

LURD and another rebel faction called Model have been tightening the noose around Taylor, shelling the very heart of the capital and stretching government defenses by advancing into the two biggest cities outside Monrovia.

"We will not give an inch in Monrovia. We will remain here until the peacekeepers can come," said one LURD commander reached by telephone.

There was some fighting on all fronts on Thursday and it was unclear whether the rebels had gained control of the strategic port city Buchanan and the central town of Gbarnga.

Three West African foreign ministers and the region's top diplomats are due to meet Taylor to discuss arrangements with the embattled former warlord for a departure to Nigeria, after the so-called Ecomil peacekeeping force arrives in Monrovia.

Checking out sites for barracking soldiers on Thursday, the Ecomil advance team returned swiftly to base after news came that politicians had issued a timetable for deployment.

An ECOWAS official with the team said they wanted to deploy as soon as possible, but they had been waiting for the word.

The team was due to leave Monrovia yesterday to prepare the mission.

Later at a downtown hotel, the US military attache in Monrovia met the head of the planned Ecomil force, Nigerian Brigadier-General Festus Okonkwo, to discuss the next stage of operations to ensure the fighting is ended.

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