West African peace-keepers traded their camouflage helmets for blue ones yesterday to form a new UN armed mission intended to restorepeace to Liberia, a nation in ruins after 14 years of conflict.
But even as the UN peace mission began, fighting broke out in the capital when Liberia's top rebel leader, Sekou Conneh, tried to make his first entry to Monrovia.
Details of the shooting were unclear, and it was not known whether Mr Conneh was injured. Witnesses said the fighting began when government soldiers objected to rebels blocking a road for their leader's motorcade.
Rebels around Mr Conneh's convoy opened fire with AK-47s and rocket launchers, causing crowds to flee the eastern neighbourhood that marked his entry to the city.
Witnesses said they saw two bodies, and other casualties. Mr Conneh had been heading to his first meeting with Moses Blah, the new President, under escort by Brigadier General Festus Okonkwo, commander of the West African peace force.
The fighting appeared to be some of the most serious since the West African forces deployed on 4 August. Their remit was to separate rebels and government fighters, ending two and a half months of fighting prompted by rebel sieges around the capital.
Colonel Theophilus Tawiah of Ghana, chief of staff of the West African force, marked the handover with the words: "We are happy to be part of the new force ... " The Nigerian-led West African peace force, 3,500 strong, had succeeded in imposing a ceasefire in the capital, ending fighting that killed more than 1,000 civilians.
The 11 August resignation of President Charles Taylor followed, leading to a power- sharing peace deal between the government and rebels.
The West African force has not been deployed nationally, leaving the countryside unse-cured. The peace-keepers are to be led by Lieutenant-General Daniel Opande of Kenya, now head of a UN mission in Sierra Leone. The UN force is due to reach its promised strength of up to 15,000 by March.
Liberians greeted the handover, but said more was needed to revive the country. Once one of Africa's richest, the nation is now without functioning electricity or roads, with hundreds of thousands still living as refugees.
Liberia descended into chaos in 1989 when Charles Taylor, then a warlord, invaded from neighbouring Ivory Coast. At the end of his seven-year insurgency, which led to the deaths of more than 150,000 people, war-weary Liberians elected him President in 1997.
Rebels took up arms against him only two years later. The power-sharing government is scheduled to take over on 14 October, leading to elections a year later and a democratically elected government in early 2005. (AP)