MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ U.S. military helicopters landed a seven-member Marine team in Liberia on Wednesday, marking the first U.S. troops on the ground to support a West African peace force.
Excited children on Monrovia's Atlantic beaches waved at the three helicopters as they swept in from ships far off shore and disappeared behind the U.S. Embassy's high walls. Minutes later, the Marines rolled out and sped away to meet with West African military officials at their temporary base at Liberia's main airport.
The U.S. team arrived as Nigerian troops at the airport _ the vanguard of a West African peacekeeping force _ prepared to enter the capital for the first time. U.S. officials have said the Marines will work only as liaisons between the West African force and U.S. commanders on the three American warships off Liberia.
Authorized by President Bush on Tuesday, the team could grow as large as 20 in coming days but is not the beginning of a larger deployment, said a senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Monrovia's trapped people have appealed for U.S. intervention throughout two bloody months of rebel sieges of the capital _ pleading for rescue from the country that oversaw Liberia's 19th-century founding by freed American slaves.
``We feel happy because we're tired of what is happening. We expect them to bring peace for us,'' said Andrew Sarte, a 32-year old refugee, among the crowds on the beach.
American diplomats barred journalists from inside the embassy for the landing. An official familiar with the deployment, speaking on condition on anonymity, confirmed the helicopters carried the military team. At least three members of a U.S. government humanitarian team also were on the flights.
The USS Iwo Jima amphibious assault ship and USS Carter Hall amphibious landing dock were within 100 miles of Liberiam, and the amphibious transport dock USS Nashville was moving to join them. U.S. officials have spoken of the ships moving into sight of Monrovia at some point _ in an intended show of force for combatants and residents.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and residents in government-held parts of Monrovia are desperate for food, and West African and U.S. diplomats have been working _ with no word of success _ to negotiate access routes to the rebel-held port area, where warehouses stocked with food are located.
Nigerian Lt. Col. Sam Nudamajo said he expected to send the first troops from his force into the city later Wednesday, to head toward the port. Nigerian forces, which began arriving three day ago, were building to battalion strength of 770-men.
Rebels have besieged the capital for months with the goal of ousting President Charles Taylor, a former warlord blamed in 14 years of conflict in once-prosperous Liberia and indicted for war crimes in nearby Sierra Leone. The fighting in Monrovia has killed well over 1,000 civilians.
On Wednesday, Taylor's forces stood guard in the middle of the bridges between the port and downtown and turned back hungry civilians trying to cross into the rebel territory in search of food.
Taylor's forces allowed only journalists to cross Wednesday. On the rebel side, civilians waited anxiously for clearance to cross over to hospitals in government territory for treatment for malaria and wounds from fighting.
``We have enough food here. But there are insufficient drugs to give medical attention to our sick, and war-wounded,'' said Sam Van Kesselly, a journalism professor.
Residents of the rebel side were tending their wounded and sick in schools, churches and rebel headquarters, with local doctors helping as they could.
In front of journalists, rebels cracked down on looting of shops and warehouses _ at one point shooting a man they said was a looter before an Associated Press Television News camera. It was unclear if the man died.
Six bodies _ some naked, others with their hands tied behind their backs _ lay on sidewalks and water-clogged streets among cans of orange juice, emptied boxes and other looted goods.
Rebel officers used rubber hoses to whip three crying, shirtless subordinates, also accused of looting.
On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador John Blaney joined West African officials in a convoy to the rebel-held side, appealing to rebel commanders to open up humanitarian access to the port.
Rebel chief of staff Maj. Gen. Abdulla Seyeah Sheriff told reporters Wednesday that would happen only when Taylor resigns and leaves Liberia. ``We will hold our positions,'' until then, said Sheriff.
Earlier, Taylor's military chief of staff, Gen. Benjamin Yeaten, warned that if rebels fail to withdraw from the port it could ``tempt me'' to break the cease-fire.
Bush and West African leaders have demanded that Taylor cede power and leave Liberia, taking an asylum offer in Nigeria. Taylor has pledged to leave office Monday, but his government says he will leave the country only when an adequate number of peacekeepers are on the ground _ and a U.N.-Sierra Leone war-crimes indictment against him is dropped.
On Wednesday, the World Court confirmed that Liberia had asked it to stop the war crimes prosecution. Officials at the World Court, the U.N.'s highest judicial body, said it would have jurisdiction only if Sierra Leone agrees.
The U.N.-backed Sierra Leone court accuses Taylor of crimes against humanity for backing Sierra Leone's rebels in a brutal 10-year civil war there.