Marines Land in Liberia
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RAY SUAREZ: Ann Simmons, welcome. How many Americans are now ashore in Liberia, and what’s their first assignment?
ANN SIMMONS: Well, first of all, some 200 Americans were meant to arrive… 200 American marines today, and it’s believed that that number has been reached. Their assignment is to basically to help support… give support to West African peacekeepers, who have been here for almost two weeks already. They will also help with logistics in terms of getting aid to people in the cities. The city has been besieged and cut off from humanitarian supplies for quite awhile. And their job also will be to help secure the port. The port is where of course their much-needed food aid comes into, and can begin to flow from there.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, it’s only the end of the first day, but can you tell any difference now that they’re here and their mission is underway?
ANN SIMMONS: Well, there is certainly a change in the atmosphere here among Monrovians. This city has been under siege, as I mentioned, for over four weeks. And people are tired; they’re hungry; and basically they’ve been awaiting the arrival of American troops for quite a while. I must say that there has been a little bit of an anticlimax. Of course, Monrovians came out in force today. They were jubilant, there was cheering and singing. But there’s also a little bit of disappointment and bitterness that this operation has taken so long, and that the Americans have not arrived before now.
RAY SUAREZ: Until the West African peacekeepers came and Charles Taylor left, Monrovia was very much a divided city. Is it less so today?
CHARLES TAYLOR: It’s been a divided city, and there are two key bridges that basically form the frontline in this city. The government forces were on the one side; the rebels on the other. Civilians have not been allowed to cross these bridges, not today. That process is likely to begin tomorrow. One of the reasons is that there are still lots of arms in this city, even though people are meant to have… the fighters at least are meant to have moved back to various positions, withdraw from the city. There has been a fear that some people have arms. So basically checkpoints will be set up on the two bridges before the human flow of traffic can begin to move.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned that there was ongoing hunger in Monrovia. Now that the Nigerian presence is beefed up and now that the Americans have entered the city, has food begun to flow to some of those parts of the city that had been short?
ANN SIMMONS: Not yet. There hasn’t been a full flow of food at this time, and we hope that by tomorrow, things will normalize. Basically, there has been a lot of looting, so there is a lack of a lot of food. Yesterday there was widespread pillaging at the port, when the rebels basically on their last day opened warehouses, and civilians and rebels helped themselves. So it will take some time before the city returns to normal. Prices have skyrocketed on the government-held side of the city, because food is so scarce. So if you do manage to get, for example, a cup of rice, which is Liberia’s staple food, it will cost you three or four times more than it would normally cost. So things have not returned to normal yet. We’re hoping to see that within the next coming days.
RAY SUAREZ: What about the rebel army? Has it decamped from the areas of the city that it held before the foreign troops arrived?
ANN SIMMONS: The main rebel group, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURDS as they are commonly known here, actually signed a declaration saying that their forces will pull back out of Greater Monrovia, out of so-called Bushford Island, which is in the northern part of the city, back to the Po River. Now, the Po River is about six miles outside of Monrovia. We did see them pack up today, there were truckloads of rebels, still armed with lots of sacks of rice and grain heading out of the city. There are still stragglers, some still around on their former territory, near the port. But I think by this evening and certainly by tomorrow morning, they, all of them, would have departed and retreated back to the Po river.
RAY SUAREZ: These were said to be somewhat undisciplined, highly irregular troops. Does their departure make the city a safer place to be?
ANN SIMMONS: Yes. There is a feeling that a level of security has returned. But the situation is still so volatile. On the government-held side, there were scores of, or hundreds of, ragtag militias that used to man checkpoints. Those have also disappeared because the deal was that both sides would retreat and leave Monrovia a free zone, make it become a free zone. So there’s still a lot of tension. You still hear sporadic gunfire, like this evening, but a lot of that is just kind of haphazard. But people do say that it’s safer, but the streets clear by about 5:00 or 6:00. No one is out at night because there is no… there are no lights in this city. So you do take a chance if you go out late at night.
RAY SUAREZ: Has the tempo of daily life changed much now that foreign troops are beginning to restore some security to the country?
ANN SIMMONS: Well, certainly in Monrovia– and I can speak for the capital- – people are out and about in the streets. Before, you’d see people dashing across intersections for fear of being hit by a stray bullet. They would hug the walls. They would crouch low on the walls. No one walked upright. So at least now people are walking upright again, and certainly there are more crowds on Monrovia’s streets than there were before. And people are looking for food.
There is widespread hunger here. And many of the shops– I would say most of the shops in city– remain closed. Businesspeople have been very concerned about the prospects of looting. So around town, you still see buildings which are welded up with iron bars and iron grating. So things are still not normal, but certainly there are more people in the streets of Monrovia today than there were, say, a week ago.
RAY SUAREZ: Ann Simmons from the Los Angeles Times, thanks very much for the update.
ANN SIMMONS: Thank you.