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End of Liberian crisis in sight as peace force agreed

West Africa's leaders made their commitment yesterday to move the first peace-keeping troops into Liberia, and the country's embattled President, Charles Taylor, out within days.

Overjoyed at the first signs of rescue, cheering crowds of tens of thousands welcomed the force's advance team in the besieged capital.

The pledge from West African leaderscame in Ghana's capital, Accra, under growing international pressure to get the long-promised peace force on the ground in Liberia.

A bloody, two-month rebel siege has caused more than 1,000 deaths and left Monrovia, the country's refugee-choked capital city, rift by hunger, thirst and epidemics.

In a statement, West African leaders said a vanguard force, expected to be two battalions with a total strength of 1,500 men from the regional power, Nigeria, would deploy by Monday. "The first task" of the troops would be to secure the departure of Taylor, West African leaders said, in a statement read by bloc executive secretary, Mohamed Ibn Chambas.

Mr Taylor is to hand over power to a successor within three days of the troops' arrival and accept an offer of exile in Nigeria, leaders said.

The leaders did not specify whether Mr Taylor had agreed. The Liberian President, a former warlord behind 14 years of conflict in once-prosperous Liberia, has said that, soon after rebels opened their attacks on the capital in early June, that he would yield power.

He has repeatedly reneged, on such statements. His government pledged last week that he would leave power as soon as the first peace-keeping troops arrive, but later said that was conditional on rebels abiding first by a 17 June ceasefire, which has been repeatedly flouted by both sides.

West African leaders urged rebel and government forces to cease fire for the deployment. Whether the two sides complied or not, the peace-keeping forces would go in, said Ghana's Foreign Minister, Nana Akuffo Ado.

Presidents of Nigeria, Ghana and Togo attended the talks, while Gambia, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Liberia sent lower-ranking officials.

In Monrovia, arrival of a 10-member West African and American advance team was enough to bring a rare break in shelling, rockets and gunfire, and bring out cheering crowds.

"We want peace!" civilians chanted, tumbling out of their shelters to cheer the foreign motorcade, and dart out in search of food. "We are hungry, but seeing these people we are full this morning," said a 31-year-old businessman, Mohammed Dauda, as residents and refugees spilled into streets littered with bullet casings and unexploded ordnance, waving handkerchiefs and flashing peace signs.

"We hope this marks the beginning of the end" of carnage," Dauda said.

"I can't hear any gun sounds today," said Moses Togbah, a blind man, tapping down streets with the aid of a cane and a small daughter at his elbow." Mr Togbah, and others, pleaded with the advance force to stay, fearing a return to the shelling and killing.

"I don't want them to just leave. Do not leave us struggling," the blind man pleaded. "People are dying."

Medical workers appealed to both sides to open an immediate aid corridor to the rebel-held port, opening the aid and commercial warehouses there for the starving city.

The advance team was meeting with Liberian and American officials, and scouting out logistics such as lodging and fuel supply.

West African leaders have promised for weeks to send a peace-keeping force to Liberia's capital. On Wednesday, the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, urged West Africans to commit to a date for the force.

Nigeria has pledged two battalions as an advance force, but, itself plagued by debts, has asked the US and others for more help with what's expected to be a multimillion-dollar daily tab. The US, which oversaw founding of Liberia by freed American slaves in the 19th century, has promised $10m, and is sending three warships with US Marines to Liberia for what President George W. Bush says will be limited assistance.