Liberia: The ecstasy, the agony

Swooping from the gunmetal-grey sky, the helicopter lurched onto the cracked runway of Monrovia airport. Nigerian special forces in body armour leapt out into the driving rain, guns poised for action.

They were confronted only with an ecstatic throng. Jigging, jogging and bellowing gospel songs, hundreds of Liberians flooded onto the tarmac chanting the now-familiar refrain: "No more war! We want peace."

A bemused Nigerian colonel was hoisted to shoulder-height and paraded across the rain-drenched tarmac.

West Africa's rescue mission is in Liberia. A forward force of 200 troops deployed yesterday while another 3,000 - including soldiers from Ghana, Senegal and Mali - are expected in the coming weeks.

"Today is a miracle day," shouted Georgia Anderson over of a chorus of singing women. "My brothers have come to bring peace to this country. I am rejoicing."

"I want to see them with my own eyes," said Bangalu Wonwondor, a former farmer living as a refugee in his own country since 1999. "And when I do, even though I have no food, my belly will be big, and I will be happy."

If divine intervention is unlikely, American help may be at hand. A fleet of three United States warships lingered off the Liberian coast with more than 2,000 troops on board.

But President George Bush is hesitating over whether to deploy them onshore, apparently waiting to see how the African mission fares.

Yesterday the US ships were still not visible from battle-scarred Monrovia. "We will have to see whether the Marines aboard would ever deploy," said the US ambassador, John Blaney, at the airport to welcome the troops.

The multinational force has a perilous mission: to halt the guns that have pounded Monrovia for two months, leaving more than 1,000 dead. They secured the airport yesterday but the real action is 40 miles west in the city, where gunfire still rattles and the country's besieged President, Charles Taylor, is plotting his next move.

Rebels of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd), who hold the city port, promised to withdraw from Monrovia to allow the African force in. On the government side, the military chief, General Benjamin Yeaten, said: "We are very happy for them to be here, so that this war can come to an end."

A macabre reminder of the carnage inflicted by their rag-tag armies lay a few miles from the rejoicing airport. In the corner of a military camp the smell of rotting flesh choked the air as Red Cross workers emptied the hospital morgue into a sandy mass grave.

Some 66 bloodied corpses, many with their bandages still attached, were unceremoniously tipped into the pit, inert limbs flailing as they fell. A government general, reportedly killed by one of this own men, and five children were among the dead.

Black plastic bags containing loose limbs were flung in as workers hastily shovelled sand on top. One young woman fainted after recognising her brother in the pile.

In Monrovia, fighting lulled for the second day, with just sporadic gunfire across hotly contested bridges. Plumes of black smoke rose behind rebel lines from a warehouse hit during the weekend shelling blitz.

The arrival of the peace-keepers - to be followed by a larger United Nations force to be deployed by 1 October - could allow the start of the huge relief operation needed to avert further humanitarian disaster in Liberia.

A Save the Children flight carrying 30 tons of aid was flown into Monrovia as the peace-keepers arrived, to help the civilians who have sought refuge in Monrovia, dodging bullets and mortars to forage for ever scarcer food and water. At least 40,000 people are camping in the city's sports stadium because they have nowhere else to go.

The most enigmatic question remains the future of President Taylor. He has promised to resign by Monday.

Mr Taylor is blamed for nearly 14 years of conflict in Liberia that has killed more than 100,000 people, and is accused of arming insurgents in other conflicts across West Africa. He has also been indicted for war crimes for supporting rebels in Sierra Leone's civil war.

Aides say he is already preparing for exile in Nigeria. But many fear that the wily survivor is just stalling for time. As his troops fanned out across the airport, Nigeria's Foreign Minister, Oluyemi Adeniji, met with Mr Taylor. He refused to comment afterwards, saying: "The President was very happy."

Meanwhile there were further signs of a breakdown in discipline among the government's forces.

A blooded soldier stumbled along the Monrovia seafront, apparently knifed by comrades who pushed him along.

Many of the illiterate government fighters say they yearn only to return to school. "If [Taylor] leaves we have to learn so we can forget about this," he said Corporal Forkpa Kulli of the Anti-Terrorist Unit, pointing to the AK-47 rifle slung off his shoulder.

"If you learn up to a certain level, nobody can play with your mind," added another soldier with plastic rosary beads around his neck.

But ordinary Liberians fear a looting spree when Mr Taylor departs office. "We don't trust them," said one resident, who requested anonymity.

Liberians are also wary of the Nigerian peace-keepers. During the last mission in the 1990, officers sold weapons and soldiers looted houses.

"It was very deadly," said Alex Kennedy, a businessman, as he watched the Nigerians jump from a helicopter. "If we have a repeat of that we will be back to where we started."

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