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Liberian peacekeepers prepare for wider deployment
( 2003-08-30 09:23) (Agencies)

Western diplomats and African peacekeepers trekked to Liberia's rebel-held second city Friday to prepare the deployment of troops and open the door for much-needed humanitarian aid.

A convoy of Nigerian soldiers led the way along the pot-holed road to the major timber port of Buchanan, which is 75 miles southeast of the capital Monrovia and was seized by a rebel faction known as Model in late July.

Liberia's government, Model, or the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, and a second rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), struck a peace deal this month to end fighting in the West African country.

A regional peacekeeping force, Ecomil, has deployed in the capital Monrovia to keep the warring factions apart, but battles have continued in the lawless hinterland and cries for an urgent, widespread deployment have been growing.

Thousands of civilians have fled skirmishes on the Buchanan road in recent weeks, but the bands of unruly government militia fighters and rebel soldiers kept a low profile Friday.

The Nigerian convoy was joined by the U.S. Ambassador John Blaney, the European Union's top diplomat in Liberia, Geoffrey Rudd, and the Nigerian commander of the Ecomil force, Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo.

On arriving in the sprawling, run-down town, the convoy was greeted by a sign reading: "Model in Action. Fire Reply Fire. Ecomil, Don't Try It, Slow Down."

The delegation met local Model chief Folly Jalay and gave him a copy of the peace deal.

"We came here to improve contact with Model, try to facilitate the free flow of humanitarian assistance and discuss the future deployment of Ecomil," Blaney told reporters.


Ecomil's Okonkwo said the meeting had been positive and that he hoped peacekeepers would deploy in a week's time, assuming planned reinforcements had landed by then.

Model's Jalay said it was the first time he'd seen the peace deal, which aims to have an interim power-sharing government with a neutral leader taking power in October and elections in 2005.

He was in a conciliatory mood and said as soon as he had word from his chairman, Model would be happy to cooperate with Ecomil and let the West African troops deploy.

There are 1,559 Nigerian troops in Monrovia, and they were joined Thursday by 250 Malians. Senegal and Ghana are due to send another 250 soldiers each while Gambia has 150 troops earmarked for peacekeeping duty in Liberia.

The EU team traveled to Buchanan to evacuate British national John Garrety who stumbled out of the bush a few days ago and sought refuge at a clinic run by an Italian nun.

No details on what the British citizen was doing in the bush were immediately available.

Buchanan is home to some 45,000 displaced people, dotted around in schools and hospitals. There is little food and medicine left after widespread looting by the rebels, and aid organizations are eager to send more help.

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