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Nigerians roll into siege city to ecstatic Liberian welcome

Nigerian peace-keepers rolled in to Monrovia to a roaring reception from ecstatic Liberians yesterday, raising hopes that the city's suffocating siege is finally over.

Hundreds of thousands thronged roads and streets as grinning Nigerian soldiers flashed v-signs from an armoured convoy that trundled down the bullet-pocked streets.

The convoy passed by the Congress building where legislators quietly accepted President Charles Taylor's formal resignation letter in which he blamed an "international conspiracy" for his downfall. Mr Taylor promised in a television interview to hand power to Vice President Moses Blah on Monday. His economics minister, speaking in London, said he might leave the country "sooner than expected".

On the streets, joyous Liberians flung themselves before Nigerian armoured personnel carriers, others reached out to brush the boots of soldiers who blew them kisses. "It's beautiful, it's beautiful," Nigerian Lieutenant-Colonel Amos Nudamajo said. Some 3,250 West African troops with the rescue mission, known as Ecomil, are expected to arrive by month's end. "We are tired of dying. We want peace in our country," said student Danish Gbawoquiya, who held an upside-down sign that read, "Ecomil we love you".

The deployment has halted a relentless, two-month rebel offensive that cornered Mr Taylor in Monrovia, his last redoubt, but also killed more than 1,000 civilians and plunged the area into a massive humanitarian crisis.

Exorbitant fuel and food prices have suffocated the oceanside city, clean water is rare and disease epidemics threaten. The city centre, largely deserted for more than two weeks as shells fell and bullets whizzed through the streets, slowly came back to life yesterday.

Some residents returned home from refugee camps, and a handful of shuttered shops opened their doors. But with the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd) rebels still controlling the port, the city remained famished.

Corner shopkeeper Goffa Manewal, returning to his ransacked business, said: "There are no more rockets, now we feel safer. But we are still hungry." The rebels have promised to allow aid through the port but so far none has arrived.

More than 40 of Liberia's 90 representatives and senators turned up for the session in the deserted Congress building to rubber-stamp Mr Taylor's resignation letter, read to the legislators. Mr Taylor blamed an "international conspiracy", including UN arms sanctions, for forcing him from office.

"They have prevented me from carrying out my constitutional responsibility of defending the country and providing essential social services to the people," he wrote. "Therefore I, as the president of this noble republic can no preside over the suffering and humiliation of the Liberian people."

Looters had filleted Congress, along with many public buildings. Offices along deserted corridors were stripped clean, carpets ripped up and electrical cabling hung from the broken ceiling.

Even Mr Taylor's own supporters said he had to go. "It is in the interest of saving the lives of the Liberian people," said Representative Ben Patten, who fled his home to escape the rebel advance.

Of the 10 legislators in his Monserrado County base, five had fled to the US or Ghana, Mr Patten added. "Those of us who did not have the money for the plane are still around."

After weeks of uncertainty, Mr Taylor's departure seems almost certain. His chosen successor, Mr Blah, is a friend from his guerrilla training days in Libya in the mid-1980s. The question now is whether he will flee into exile on Monday, as the Lurd rebels demand. Mr Taylor is struggling against a war crimes indictment brought against him by the Special Court in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

The office of President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, which has offered Mr Taylor asylum, said his office was "finalising arrangements" for his departure.

About 2,300 US Marines are on US warships anchored 100 miles off Liberia. A seven-strong team of Marines is in Monrovia to liaise with the African mission. President George Bush has set Mr Taylor's departure and an effective ceasefire as pre-conditions for American Marines landing to help Ecomil.

A Boeing 707 plane carrying a container full of weapons landed at Monrovia airport on Wednesday night, sources said. The delivery caused a confrontation between Nigerian troops and waiting government soldiers, which ended with the laden plane taking off again.