Almost 200 Nigerian troops arrived at Liberia’s international airport on Monday as the vanguard of a West African peacekeeping force, but their commander warned that it would be “a couple of days” before they began to deploy in the war-torn capital Monrovia.
Some fighting was still reported in Monrovia and Liberia’s second city Buchanan, even though both rebel movements fighting President Charles Taylor said they would ceasefire and cooperate with the peacekeepers.
General Festus Okonkwo, the commander of the peacekeeping force, said all 1,500 Nigerian troops due to be deployed in Liberia in the first phase of the peacekeeping operation would be flown in by Friday.
But he told reporters that it would be “a couple of days” before they started moving out from Robertsfield international airport to Monrovia, about 50 km away, and up to a week until they achieved full control of the capital.
“When we get the required logistics I am certain that the deployment in Monrovia will be completed within a week from now,” he said.
The first Nigerian troops flew in aboard UN helicopters from Sierra Leone as a US naval task force including the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima took up station offshore with 2,300 marines on board.
The United States has been reluctant to put troops on the ground in Liberia, but it has promised the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is organising the peace-keeping force, logistical support and US $10 million in cash.
Okonkwo said that in addition to Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Togo, Benin, Mali and Gambia had committed troops to the ECOWAS Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL) multinational force, which is eventually due to number 5,000 men.
Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development (LURD), a rebel movement which has been battling government forces for control of Monrovia, said it would withdraw from the city and hand over its strategic port to ECOMIL once the peacekeepers were ready to take control.
General Komeh, alias “K1" the LURD deputy commander in Monrovia, told IRIN that he had received instructions from LURD chairman Sekou Conneh to withdraw his forces to the Po River, on the northern outskirts of the city, once ECOMIL moved in to take over.
A second rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), which captured Liberia’s second city Buchanan, last week, said it was ready to declare a truce so long as Taylor’s forces stopped attacking its positions.
Tiah Slanger, the leader of MODEL’s delegation at Liberian peace talks in the Ghanaian capital Accra, told IRIN : “We asked our fighters to cease all hostilities on July 29. Since then, we have made advances only in situations where we have been attacked by Taylor’s forces. Anytime they attack our positions, we will continue to counter attack."
Diplomats and relief workers expressed concern that with Taylor resisting international pressure to step down and go into exile within the next 72 hours and the Nigerians delaying their deployment into Monrovia, heavy fighting could yet resume.
Slanger said: “We have already told ECOWAS that Taylor is not someone we can trust. We know he will not leave until he has been moved out forcibly.”
Okonkwo said that, if necessary, he was prepared to turn his peacekeeping force into a fighting force that would take on any of the belligerents who failed to observe a truce.
“The mandate will be to create a means of separation between the warring forces to enhance the free movement of citizens and humanitarian agencies as well as to form a nucleus for the establishment of a stabilisation force,” Okonkwo said.
He added: “We are here to keep peace… but if we were not to keep peace it will amount to enforcing peace. We will get back to the people who sent us who will give us the mandate.”
The starving inhabitants of Monrovia danced in the streets as the first UN helicopters clattered overhead in the midst of a heavy tropical downpour.
Food supplies have almost run out in the beleaguered city of over one million people where the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) now estimates that up to 450,000 people have been made homeless by recent fighting.
OCHA said it would shortly launch an appeal for US $69 million to assist one million people in war-torn Liberia - a third of the country's populalation - during the rest of this year.
Meanwhile more planes arrived at Robertsfield airport bringing in relief supplies. The UN World Food Programme flew in a further 11.5 tonnes of high energy biscuits from neighbouring Sierra Leone for immediate distribution to starving people in government-held areas of the city.
Within hours, some were being distributed to 5,000 displaced people taking refuge at a high school in the nearby town of Harbel. Relief workers estimated over 20,000 displaced people have flooded into the town.
Diplomatic sources said WFP was now preparing to fly in 10 to 15 trucks to distribute food supplies stored in the rebel-held port area as soon as it was able to regain access to its warehouses there.
Many vehicles belonging to UN agencies and non governmental organisations in Monrovia have been looted by pro-Taylor fighters.
The British-based charity Save the Children meanwhile flew 30 tonnes of relief supplies into Liberia, including high energy biscuits, medical supplies and water purification tablets.
The city has almost no clean drinking water, sanitation in the makeshift camps for displaced people is grossly inadequate and cholera and diarrhoea have become rampant.