Rebels agree to end three-week siege of Monrovia

Liberian rebels agreed yesterday to withdraw from Monrovia, potentially ending a three-week siege that has left hundreds dead and sparked a humanitarian crisis.

After meeting US and Nigerian peacekeeping commanders, the rebels said they would leave the city's port area at noon tomorrow and retreat to the Po river eight miles away.

"We are not leaving one man behind, all of us will pack our bags and leave for our headquarters," said Sekou Fofana, a senior official with Liberians United For Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd). John Blaney, the US ambassador, said international peacekeepers would move in to occupy the vacuum but any US involvement "has to be determined".

The peacekeeping delegation was protected by 21 heavily-armed American troops from US warships moored off the coast.

The breakthrough should allow in humanitarian supplies and help end the food crisis affecting more than one million people. The agreement came a day after Charles Taylor left for exile in Nigeria, handing the presidency to Moses Blah, his deputy.

Lurd officials said they had been told government troops would also withdraw from positions in central Monrovia.

Impatience with the peacekeeping mission was growing in Monrovia as the food crisis deepened. Cries of "We want peace" changed to "We want rice" as the US-led convoy passed through market areas on their way to the frontline.

Some Monrovians barked comments and waved angrily as the US ambassador's car passed through the throng. Hundreds had gathered at the mouth of the bridge leading to rebel territory, where government militiamen refused to allow them pass.

Rebel control of the port has cut off rice supplies from most of the city, raising prices tenfold in recent days. Fuel prices have risen to £18 a gallon, hampering aid workers now returning to the city.

The main rebel group has held Monrovia's port and surrounding districts since roughly 19 July. Rebels had insisted they would leave the port only when Mr Taylor had left the country, and when the West African peacekeepers were ready to take the port to keep it from falling back into government hands.

Brigadier General Festus Okonkwo of Nigeria, the peace force commander, said the government side would be obliged to withdraw its militias from the city as well. Whether that meant regular Liberian forces as well as militias would be made to pull out was not clear. The written accord with rebels said nothing about a government militia pullback.

The United States, which oversaw Liberia's founding by freed slaves in the 19th century, has provided some logistical support and funding to the West African peace mission.

Mr Taylor flew into exile in Abuja, Nigeria on Monday as hundreds of Liberians, thin and ragged, prayed his departure would mark a turning point for their war-torn country.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, Mr Blah appealed to the US Marines to land. "Please come to Liberia and save us because we are dying. We are hungry." President George Bush called Mr Taylor's exile "an important step toward a better future" for Liberians but gave no hint whether he was closer to deploying more US troops to help with peacekeeping or humanitarian relief.

At Monday's handover ceremony in Monrovia, Mr Taylor mentioned returning to Liberia despite admitted fears of assassination and an international arrest warrant from a UN-backed war crimes court.

Accusing the United States of forcing him out, Mr Taylor remained unrepentant for launching once-prosperous Liberia into bloodshed in 1989, when as a rebel he led a small insurgency to topple President Samuel Doe.

Mr Taylor faces indictment for alleged diamond and arms-trafficking with a rebel movement in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Rebels have seized most of Liberia in their three-year campaign.

Mr Blah is to hand over power in October to a transitional government meant to lead Liberia into elections.