Tens of thousands break through front-lines, rejoining Liberia's war-divided capital

Friday, August 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Desperate for food, tens of thousands of civilians broke through barricades on Monrovia's front-line bridges Friday, reuniting Liberia's capital after 10 weeks of rebel siege.

The bridges had divided the city, separating hundreds of thousands of hungry people on the cut-off government side from the warehouses and other stockpiles of the rebel side. Rebels withdrew from Monrovia Thursday, making the reunion possible.

West African peacekeepers, trying to control the chaos, had planned to reopen the bridges later Friday.

But massive throngs rushed the bridges and overran the razor-wire barricades by early morning.

``Nobody opened the bridge. They just overpowered us,'' Prvt. Moses Peter of Nigeria said.

By early morning, excited crowds were pouring across from both sides. They carried back sacks of food, many of them marked with the with the logo of the World Food Program. The U.N. agency's warehouses were looted during the fighting.

President Charles Taylor, a former warlord blamed for 14 years of fighting here, resigned under rebel and international pressure Monday and left the country, opening the way for the rebel withdrawal.

On Thursday, 200 American troops landed to support a West African peacekeeping force. After their arrival, tens of thousands of people filled the streets and waved the flags of Nigeria _ which is leading the peacekeeping force _ and the United States.

``God bless you, Oga,'' women cried to convoys of Nigerians on Thursday, using the Nigerian Yoruba language word for ``boss.'' ``God bless you, Marine,'' they sang to other vehicles filled with American troops.

It was the biggest U.S. mission in Africa since Somalia in 1993. The United States previously had about a dozen soldiers on the ground in Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century.

Washington has stressed that the U.S. role would focus mostly on humanitarian assistance.

Nigeria, West Africa's military power, started flying in a second battalion of 700-800 men on Thursday. The African force is expected to grow to about 3,250 soldiers.

Liberian President Moses Blah, Taylor's former vice president, flew to Accra, Ghana, on Thursday for ongoing peace talks with the rebels. Mediators said they hoped to sign a peace deal Saturday.

Draft proposals have Blah yielding power in October to a transition government, which would serve two years and preside over new elections. The deal would ban both sides from top posts in the interim government.