US forces pour into Liberia with M16s and razor wire

The siege is finally over. American marines landed dramatically in Monrovia yesterday, clearing the way for Nigerian peace-keepers to seize control of the battered city and end a mounting humanitarian crisis.

Three days after the pariah President, Charles Taylor, fled into exile, US warplanes and helicopters screamed over Liberia's capital while Nigerian troops were pushing into rebel territory. A giant crowd of dancing and singing Liberians gave them a riotous welcome as they crossed frontline bridges, scenes of the most chaotic fighting in recent weeks. "Thank you! Thank you, America!" many cried.

More than 100 US Marines landed at the city's airport on a fleet of troop transport helicopters from the warship USS Iwo Jima. Clutching M-16 rifles and wearing jungle green camouflage, they fanned out across the airport compound.

The Nigerian commander, Brigadier General Festus Okonkwo, shook hands briefly with his rebel counterpart Major-General Seyea Sheriff in a brief ceremony on Monrovia's bullet-pocked New Bridge. Vast crowds thronged either end of the bridge, hoping for food, a return home or news of lost family and friends. "My father, my brother, my sister, they are all over there," said David Wiles, pointing across to the rebel side. "I don't know if they are dead or alive."

At the other end of the bridge, Rodney Taylor, a US Marine, guarded an army jeep while the crowd danced and sang. "A good day, gentlemen, a good day," he said with a smile. The Liberians fell back as an American helicopter hovered overhead, dropping bales of razor wire to help control the swelling crowds.

The greatest crowd gathered on the southern, government side of the bridges, where rice shortages have sparked a severe food crisis. Nigerian peace-keepers barricaded the bridge for a few hours, fearing a crush if the crowd surged forward. Some couldn't wait any longer. Hundreds of young men leapt into the Dou river and swam across. At least one drowned.

"I couldn't wait any more," said Mark Blay, who was panting on the far side, holding his dripping sneakers in his hand. "I've got to see my two-year-old son. I've been worried so much."

As feared government militia fighters pulled out, there was strong anti-military sentiment. Many said they had suffered last-minute looting at the hands of rampaging gunmen in recent days. A young soldier who passed by the crowd with a cassette player on his shoulder was jeered with cries of "rogue, rogue".

"We don't trust them. Now that the president it gone, they call themselves 'E no ma, no pa'. It means there is not control over them any more," said Emmanuel Gee, 30, as he waited to cross.

On the rebel side, Kerkula M Kamara was also waiting to cross. "The demand of the people has been settled. Taylor is gone. I believe we have seen the end of the war," he said.

The Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd) rebels stuck to their promise and pulled back from the city to the Po river, seven miles away. Ragged fighters clung to car bonnets and shot in the air as a convoy of ram-shackle vehicles streamed north. A truck piled high with looted goods waited outside the shipping office that served as rebel headquarters.

Nigerian troops moved in to to occupy the port, opening the way for deliveries of vital supplies to ease the severe humanitarian crisis. "It gives us hope that the desperately-needed opening of the port to allow the delivery of emergency supplies will succeed," said an Oxfam spokesman.

On the quayside Nigerian peacekeeper Pte Suleiman Black manned a machine gun mounted on car tyres. "The mission is a success," he said.

But some among the waiting crowd were more cautious. During 14 years of on-off war, ceasefires have come and gone with alarming regularity. "The war is not over yet. Not until we see how things will improve," said Kevin Johnson.

The new president, the former Taylor ally Moses Blah, flew to nearby Ghana for fresh talks with the rebel leaders to try to bring an end to 14 years of strife that have cost at least 250,000 lives in the West African nation. Mr Blah has already offered Lurd the post of vice-president as an olive branch and is expected to meet with rebel leader Sekou Conneh in Accra today.

The second, smaller rebel group, Model, had pledged to pull back to the outskirts of the southern city of Buchanan, the American ambassador John Blaney said.

About 200 US Marines are due to be deployed in Liberia over the coming days. They will provide airport security and logistical support to the West African force, organised by the regional bloc, Ecowas.

"We're here to keep fighting from breaking out rather than getting involved. That's the job of the Ecowas," said Capt Eric Clark as the American troop carriers took off again. Leaders of the post-Taylor government said they welcomed the US deployment.

"It's long-awaited and we thank God it's been realised," said Lewis Brown, the foreign minister. It "leads one to believe we might be closer to the end".

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