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Liberian rebels to pull back as US marines awaited
( 2003-08-14 09:10) (Agencies)

U.S. Marines from a task force stationed off Liberia were expected to land in the capital Monrovia on Thursday as rebels started pulling out of the battered city to let West African peacekeepers in.

U.S. troops may enter Monrovia following the rebels promised withdrawal from the capital on Thursday. Liberians looted food supplies today from the port city.  [AP]
The planned deployment signaled an increasing role for U.S. troops in Liberia after the departure into exile of President Charles Taylor, although the Pentagon said the Marines would only go ashore briefly and not all of them would stay overnight.

Air Force Major-General Norton Schwartz, director of operations for the U.S. military's joint staff, said most of the 200 Marines due to deploy in the next few days from three warships off Liberia's coast would be part of a quick reaction force to help Nigerian peacekeepers if necessary.

Around 800 peacekeepers are already based at Monrovia's airport and a second Nigerian battalion is expected to arrive on Thursday.

The peacekeepers are due to take control of Monrovia's vital port by Thursday noon (8 a.m. EDT) from rebels who have pledged to withdraw 8 miles from the city's outskirts.

Aid workers say reopening the port will allow them to ship in badly needed humanitarian aid to relieve hundreds of thousands of people who have been surviving on little food and water since the rebels attacked Monrovia three weeks ago.

The rebel assault, the latest chapter in nearly 14 years of bloodshed, left 2,000 people dead and traumatized Liberians are begging the United States to come to the rescue of a country founded by freed American slaves.

U.S. helicopters whirred low over Monrovia and new President Moses Blah, who took over from Taylor on Monday, said U.S. jets would soon start patrols to help peace efforts in the anarchic country.

But Washington, mindful of the bloody debacle its forces suffered in Somalia a decade ago, is reluctant to get sucked into another potential African minefield.

Fresh fighting since Taylor's departure near Liberia's second city of Buchanan has already shown that getting rid of the former warlord, indicted by a U.N.-backed court for his role in a savage conflict in Sierra Leone, would not be a guarantee of peace.

Taylor, seen as the prime mover behind more than a decade of regional conflicts, has started life in exile in Nigeria's southeastern town of Calabar.

Aides said Blah, Taylor's former deputy, would fly on Thursday to Ghana's capital Accra, where stuttering peace talks have been under way since June. But Ghanaian officials said a meeting with rebels who have rejected him because of his close links to Taylor was not on the agenda.


In Monrovia, famished Liberians hoped the peacekeepers' deployment will speed up the arrival of food and medical supplies to end their misery.

But thousands could not wait and went on a looting spree on Wednesday, grabbing whatever food stocks were left at the port under the watchful eye of rebels preparing to retreat.

A U.N. senior humanitarian official said the situation was desperate in Monrovia, where the population has been swelled by hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing fighting in the rest of the country.

"We are very concerned about the large number of displaced people but also the people in their homes who have no access to food," Carolyn McAskie told Reuters.

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