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Liberian rebels say will pull back from Monrovia
( 2003-08-13 09:17) (Agencies)

Liberian rebels pledged on Tuesday to withdraw from the capital of the war-ruined West African country, a day after Charles Taylor quit as president and went into exile under international pressure.

Washington has not committed itself to using any of its 2,300 Marines aboard warships off Monrovia in a peacekeeping role in Liberia, but a senior U.S. defense official said small groups could be flown into the capital in days ahead to help with tasks such as humanitarian aid.

The official told reporters in Washington he was talking about groups of five or six Marines and that the force's commander, U.S. Army Major General Thomas Turner, had discussed the matter with West African peacekeepers in Monrovia.

"We're talking about small numbers," said the official, asking not to be named. He said other tasks could include medical care for civilians and liaison with the peacekeepers.

Pressed whether larger numbers might go ashore in an emergency to join the fewer than 100 U.S. troops already in Liberia, the official said: "Anything's possible."

But he said there were no current plans to form a Marine "quick reaction force" to fly to the aid of the peacekeepers if heavy fighting broke out between the government and rebels.

The United States is wary of deep involvement given commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Memories also live on of a bloody debacle in Somalia a decade ago -- the last major U.S. military involvement in Africa.

The LURD rebel group said after a meeting with Turner that by Thursday they would let the West African peacekeepers into Monrovia's vital port, so food could get to hundreds of thousands of famished refugees.


From there the rebels would withdraw to the Po River bridge, about eight miles from the outskirts of the steamy city, where at least 2,000 people were killed in the most recent fighting of nearly 14 years of non-stop strife.

"We're packing to leave, we want to give the peacekeepers a chance," rebel leader Damate Conneh told Reuters by phone from Ghana, where peace talks have ground on for weeks.

The pullback by the rebels should also allow the peacekeeping unit known as Ecomil to create a buffer zone between volatile fighters, still eyeball-to-eyeball on the front line, as desperate people around them clamor for food.

There is more food on the rebel side -- stocks in the port were looted, but few have the money to buy it.

"Ecomil have to come urgently. Then we will feel safe," said Gerald Adolphus Payne-Davis, caught behind the rebel line.

"Better late than never Ecomil," read graffiti scrawled near the devastated New Bridge, scene of heavy fighting.

Hopes of peace after the departure of Taylor, accused of fanning years of conflict in the region, were clouded on Tuesday by more fighting between government soldiers and another rebel faction called Model in central Liberia.

New President Moses Blah, Taylor's former deputy, has urged President Bush to intervene and offered the rebels the post of vice-president as an olive branch.

"We will work with President Blah to maintain the cease-fire and ensure a smooth transition to the transitional government," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.

Fighting that erupted on Monday as Taylor was stepping down showed it was still premature to declare the war over.

Liberia's government and Model rebels accused each other of starting the latest bloodshed as Taylor resigned. Military sources said the fighting had died down.

Taylor arrived in the southeast Nigerian town of Calabar to begin his exile at a set of elegant villas prepared for him and dozens of family members and associates.

Hemmed in by rebels and U.N. sanctions and wanted by a U.N.-backed war crimes court in neighboring Sierra Leone, Taylor had little option but to leave or fight to the death.

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